Jàl limped around the corner. His breathing laboured, mouthfuls of stagnate air flowing past his lips in rasping gulps. Stupid, he chastised himself. One little lapse in judgment and now the whole city is out searching for him. How could he be so careless?
“Get a move on,” Roake shouted over her shoulder.
“Yeah. Give me a minute to catch my breath,” Jàl panted his reply.
“We don’t have a minute. The Verge are closing in. Can’t say for sure what will happen if they catch us.” She shouted.
“I think I can stop them. I need some time to concentrate. And I can’t do that while I’m gasping for air.”
“The magnificent Jàl Condor.” Roake stretched the emphasize of his first name, pronouncing it Yell. “Whoo. Those monsters are probably shaking in their boots.” Roake mocked. “A couple more steps. That’s all. Get your ass in gear soldier.”
Jàl let his argument die with Roake’s words. He refilled his aching lungs, then sprinted. He followed Roake into the alley. The crowded noise of Manchester street faded as they moved deeper into the walled tunnel.
“There.” She pointed toward the brick facade. “This has to be close to where we entered. We need to hurry.”
The relative quiet of the alley behind the pair exploded in mind-numbing shrills. Jàl spun on his feet. His hands thrown up and clamped over his ears to block the grating, high pitched squeals as he peered back at the mouth of the alley where it parted from the busy street.
Two women and a man approached from the corner. The trio’s human disguises shimmered in and out of view with the fluctuating shadows in the alley interrupting the flow of light beaming from the sunlit street.
Jàl studied the creatures. The carefully detailed shells the beasts created to mimic the form of human avatars populating the game, exposed in the fractured sunlight. Even from a distance, the yellow tinge surrounding the irises of the Verge’s eyes was apparent to Jàl. And the slight, odd mannerisms, the only other tell-tale signs betraying the alien intruders. But now, in the consuming shade of the alley, the Verge’s facades melted, the monster’s human forms evaporating as they stepped farther away from the lighted street.
Lucky for him and Roake that she noticed the Verge lurking in the old bank building blocks north of the alley. The cluster of the creatures hidden throughout the interior of the building where Jàl and Roake believed free of the games monstrosities, and home to the prize needed to complete this level of the game.
His mind refocused as the lead Verge snaked its head farther around the corner. The abominations joined in a chorus of high pitched squeals, the noise rising in tempo as their combined excitement settled on the trapped prey.
Jàl stood dumbfounded. The number of times he had witnessed the mind retching noise the Verge used to communicate, he had yet to figure out how the abominations understood each other with the screechy language spewing from their mouths. His curiosity overruled his need for flight.
“Jàl. We’ve got to move.” Roake’s voice broke into his trance.
Wide-eyed, Jàl stood fixed to the ground as one of the creatures lumbered in his direction. The trio of ugliness trudged closer. The trio walked shoulder to shoulder. Loud, shrill exchanges emanated from the beasts. Jàl turned in Roake’s direction. His injured leg slowing his escape.
Roake leaned close to the section of the wall. Her hands busily searching the rough brick material looking for a way to open the hidden door and escape this latest nightmare.
Jàl limped closer. “Over there.” He pointed. “Up. To your right.” The upgraded transplant in his skull locking on the metal box hidden in the wall.
Roake scrambled for the keypad disguised in the brick pattern. Her hand rubbing along the surface, feeling for the smooth plate of the sensor. Spittle began to rain down on the two. The Verge awkwardly rumbled closer. The shrill screams of their voices overwhelming, filling the void created by the rising walls of the buildings lining the alley.
Jàl pushed Roake’s hand aside and jammed his hand on the smooth panel. The sensor beeped. The impenetrable wall of brick and mortar shimmered. A black passage opened. With a shove, Jàl pushed Roake through the opening before diving after her. He landed on his hands. His palms pressing on the safety of the familiar metal floor. A womb of darkness welcoming the fleeing pair.
Jàl flipped on his backside, his eyes travelling back to the opening. The opening dissolved first. The view, from his side of the wall flashed transparent. He remained on the floor, frozen. The Verge continued onward. Their momentum carried them into the now solid wall. The beasts recoiled and stared at the brick where seconds earlier the door materialized.
“That was too close. You would think that the number of times we’ve played this game, we would be familiar with the habits of the Verge. It’s like they adapt and change each time we restart the program.” He sat on the ground watching the monsters scratch and hammer the wall. Puzzled, he remained on the floor, his intrigue matching his confusion. “Impossible,” he mumbled in the dark. “This is not an expected part of the programming.”
The transparent opening faded to darkness and the room's lights brightened. Turning from the source of their ordeal, Jàl nervously laughed at his fatal mistake. His head tilted upward in a sheepish glance over at Roake. Her face left little doubt how amusing she found the proceedings.
“You’re an asshole,” she grumbled. “If the Verge catch us, I doubt we’ll make it out of the game.”
“We were so close,” he said in defence. A grin brightened his boyish features while his fingers combed through his shaggy hair. “The globe was within reach. Damn. Seconds longer. That’s all I needed.”
Jàl stood and dusted off his khakis. Roake climbed to her knees. Reaching down, Jàl extended his hand to assist Roake to her feet.
“One of these days you’ll go too far,” she slapped his hand away. “Why must you insist on pushing our luck.” She turned her back to the wall.
“It’s only a game. Don’t be overdramatic.”
“The consequences are real when we’re in the framework. We could still die. Don’t you realize that.”
“Come on. We don’t know that for certain. Besides, we always manage to escape before the Verge tag us.”
“Have I said that you are an asshole.” Roake stormed away. “Computer. Replay the last 5 minutes of the Mixed Reality session.” She instructed.
“When the Verge are close to me.” Jàl hesitated. “It’s like I can see inside their heads.” He recalled the first appearance by the Verge in the bank. How, when they startled him, he unexpectedly held the Verge frozen with his thoughts. The showdown was brief, but still?
“If I concentrate, I believe it may be possible to change their actions with my mind. Yes,” he shook his head confirming words. “I know I can.” Then Jàl retreated to his thoughts not bothering to tell Roake about the adaptations he made to his implant. He snapped out of his self-imposed trance with a sudden burst of excited energy, expanding on his formulations. “If I’m right, which I probably am. With the proper training, I might be able to render the Verge helpless or at least slow them.” He walked to the mini fridge in his lab and grabbed an energy drink.
“You want one.” He held the can high, waiting for Roake’s answer.
Carrying the drinks, he walked behind the station with the computer manifolds. Finding his favourite cushion, he plopped down. His train of thought returned to the unusual powers he accidentally discovered within the walls of the game. Hard to explain the changes to Roake. He needed time to test the abilities of his new found mental agility. The next time they entered the game, he had to find a safe place to probe the extent of his mental prowess.
“I wonder how this could happen? What’s the cause?” he thought out loud. “I never programmed any type of…” he looked over at Roake, wiggling his fingers to make his point. “special powers or unfair advantages for us. The program is only supposed to be a simulated training program.
Okay. I will modestly admit, the Verge are a nice compliment to the training exercise. Ingenious, I might add. My idea of programming the enemy to resemble hideous creatures and all. It does stimulate one's desire not to lose. But in the same breath, the advantage of a cognizant interface with the games program while inside the realm of the game won’t benefit us in this reality.”
Roake rubbed the base of her neck. The implant began irritating her again.
“What do you suppose General Dimitri will say once he discovers that you’re using his funds to make Holo games.”
“What?” Jàl asked. “The devices I promised, work. Maybe not exactly as promised, but the potential is there.
My research is still a ways from mass development, but the basics are fundamentally sound. And besides. The game is fun and vital. The information we are collecting while in the mainframe will help me find a portal to the lowest level,” he smiled over at her. “You’re the best agent he has and the training will only better your instincts. In time I can expand its use.”
Jàl fell silent. A disturbing and annoying habit to everyone who knew him. His ability to zone everyone out in mid-conversation while he became lost to a new flow of ideas.
Roake’s hand returned to the red rash at the base of her neck. Regret on her part for agreeing to the implant and the participation in Jàl’s trials. The damn thing was driving her crazy. She turned her eyes to the bank of computer monitors. The screens showed the Verge still sniffing around the wall. Odd, she realized. The monsters only existed in the game's coding. The program should have reverted back to the beginning once her and Jàl escaped.
Unless he tweaked the code and found a way to hold the timeline. Even still. Why would the Verge remain at the wall? Freaky. And eerily, too real.
“The implant still giving you problems.” Roake flinched at Jàl’s comment. His returned awareness jolting her from her concerns. “Is that why you had problems locating the keypad at the exit?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Roake hesitated. Her hand subconsciously touched the inflamed redness on her neck. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Her eyes jumped back to the computer monitors. A more pressing concern lay before her.
“Have you modified the programming on the stimulation?”
Jàl fixed Roake with a confused stare. “No. Why. Is there something off with the interface?”
Roake glanced back at the screens. The alley was empty. The Verge, gone. The game paused.
“Noooo.” She let the word hang in the air. Her confusion apparent. “I think we pushed too hard today that’s all. I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap before the party tonight.” Roake gave the screens a quick second look.
“We have to be at the Generals by eight. Wake me in a couple of hours.” Her words trailed off as she crossed the lab and climbed the stairs to the loft.
Jàl mingled between the groups of socialites, each preening for his attention. A room full of the ultra rich vying for even seconds of conversation with the reclusive genius, Jàl Condor. The reason so many of New Market’s elites ventured out at this late hour. Risking the possibilities of running afoul of the bands of societies castaways that roamed the night skies, or worse, the possibility of contracting the debilitating illness by exposing one's self to crowds.
And all this to meet an intellectual giant such as Jàl Condor. Jàl shrank at the thought, but apparently, others felt this opportunity worth the extra precautions warranted by leaving the sanitized environs of their homes to tempt the gods and travel the distance once the sun gave way to dark.
That, and the fact the General requested their attendance, or, more so, the donations each would make to the cause. General Dimitri Orgov. The man relegated by the ruling families to protect the health and structure in the cloud city from the warring middle class and the lowly scourge of groundliers occupying the bottom stories of the towering city of New Market. And now, the man chosen to find an end to the plague set upon the city.
Jàl worked the room. The party’s guests greeting each other with the simple nod of acknowledgment. Since the arrival of the air-borne disease, handshakes or close contact with another person became socially unacceptable lead to the latest custom requiring a 3-foot buffer between acquaintances.
The nouveau rich adherently stuck to these restrictions. Money served no purpose to the dead or to the growing number of castaways inflicted with the illness and shunned by society. The rich valued their wealth over everything. Designer masks, a recent addition for socialites, blended with the extravagant gowns and tuxedos on display. The eloquent face coverings shielded the lower portion of the guest's faces.
Jàl withdrew inward, the loud buzz of excited talk filling the room, overwhelming.
His focus centred on the glass of contraband soda clutched in his hand and the hypocrisy it represented. The clear carbonated drink, a favourite at these parties. Jàl sipped at the remaining ounce of the precious liquid. Tilting the glass, he watched the liquid slide along the interior of the glass. The bubbles clinging to the side before evaporating. His thoughts following the carbonated bubbles around the glass surface as he raised his head and scanned the faces of the lavish partygoers.
A funny world, he mused. The drinking of a prohibited substance meant a harsh penalty, if. In today’s society, there was always an ‘If’, if one was not a part of the upper echelon ruling the massive cloud city. Here the law was what you could afford, the more riches one controlled, the fewer restrictions. Most city laws were created to restrict the less wealthy. The ones serving at gatherings like this banquet or those who toiled on the lower levels. The same people who rarely if ever ventured above the 200th floor to the rising heights of elites.
That being said, the crowd enjoying tonights soirée would never dream of venturing below the very same line. A civilization separated by concrete and steel. Oh. And lasers and death patrols and on and on. Movement between castes was tightly restricted, but still, money had its privileges, for instance, the fizzing soda in his glass. He doubted the manufacturing of the illegal product occurred above the cut line; the sky dwellers lacked the necessary resources required. One of the ruling families used their ties to the middle class to smuggle the substance for the delight of the party goers.
And since the emergence of the unknown virus, a crime that had been deemed punishable by death if not for the General’s people determining the contagion originated far below the jumble of floors occupied by the inferior society. No. The intellects determined the virus originated in the very depths of New Market. The levels occupied by the groundliers.
Jàl wondered away from the admiring flocks of finely dressed couples and stood in front of the window. His eyes pointed downward as if his sight could span miles and gaze into the grimy, polluted barrens deserted by distance ancestors. A harsh landscape left behind, and only groundliers remained to eke a living on the planet's surface.
His vision tracked a few lights twinkling across the abyss but the span between towers consumed by darkness. He shrugged. The view during daylight hours was not altogether different. Clouds of grey and brown obscured all sight of the lower regions. And from where he stood, on the clearest of days, even the heavily protected division line some 60 odd floors down would be impossible to see.
Jàl lived all of his 37 years at this altitude. Like everyone else, he heard the rumours of life on the lower levels but had little association with any who had ventured below. Why. Could the middle class, or even the groundliers be that much different than the people in this room? Unlikely, he reasoned. They were known to be filthy savages, but really. Did they not also have two arms and two legs and care about the same things his fellow dwellers found important. He shrugged, pushing his reflective mood for another time.
The thought forgotten, replaced by blinding pain.
The drink in his hand began to tremble, the glass slipping from his grip as his hands shot to his head. The pain gripped the base of his skull before inching up and spreading into his brain. His vision faded to dark then exploded into a searing light. In a semi-comatose state, he felt the floor shake. Small vibrations crept upwards, from the soles of his feet, passing along his legs through his upper body before buzzing past his head. A massive tremor shook the building.
The shaking of the room and the headache ceased as quickly as they arrived. At least this time the attack was brief. The buzzing left a ringing in Jàl's ears. And what was with the sudden band of headaches, anyway? He cursed, his hand massaging the base of his neck.
And why did they seem to accompany the tremors? He chewed his lip fighting off the remnants of pain. The Mixed Reality program was finally gaining traction. Could that be the clue? Did the groundliers have the ability to troll his movements.? Where the attacks a means of slowing his progress?
He mopped at the drops of sweat beaded on his forehead. His mind swirled with questions. The first time the pain gripped his head, he feared it might be the onslaught of the virus. But that was weeks ago, and each one a precursor to the tremors that shook the city. He suffered several episodes since, but none of the debilitating symptoms of the sickness followed.
A sliver of good news in an avalanche of bad news. The severe pain of the headaches a precursor to the bad tremors that rattled the city. Another unwanted attack from the very pit of the city, the lair of the groundliers. Where else could these disasters originate?
General Dimitri’s spies spent countless hours scouring the hostile regions at the middle of the towering city, the levels inhabited by the Middle Class, in search of answers. The deadly covert missions run behind enemy lines failed to expose a single thread of evidence linking the warring faction beneath as the cause of the problem.
The conclusion arrived upon by the leaders. The Middle Class lacked both the means to revive a long extinct epidemic nor the want to construct a weapon powerful enough to shake the city towering above them, the highest levels on New Market. The home of the Cloud Dwellers.
All avenues lead to a singular conclusion. The only answer possible. But what type of technology did the groundliers possess that would enable the lowest realm of human existence the power to bypass the bio-bio-shield and attack the upper levels?
The collective sound of people gasping in fear snapped Jàl from his reverie. Glasses rattled and somewhere in the building an alarm sounded. Through the fog of pain, he swivelled away from the undulating glass window and surveyed the room. Worried, frightened faces stared about. Exposed patches of skin showing past the protective masks, drained of colour. Nervous eyes wildly cast about the shaking room.
The tremors were increasing in frequency. Why? And could the cause really rise from hundreds of floors beneath where he stood? On a surface that not even a long line of ancestors had set foot.
Ignoring the other guests as they scurried about, Jàl’s mind circled back to the reason for the gala. Money desperately needed to support a massive project. A means to bypass the bio-shield and transport the General’s death squads to the depths of the city, down to the very surface of the planet to retrieve a cure for the debilitating and deadly disease and bring an end to the tremors before steel and glass collapsed upon itself, finishing what the contagion started.
While the pain in his skull subsided, the fear in the room triggered memories of the initial discovery of the virus to resurface. The shock and disbelief among the dwellers above the clouds. How previous generations had come and gone without a single recorded illness.
History taught that, not since the middle class rose above the pits of the groundliers and installed the bio-shield to prevent further outbreaks, had anyone suffered from an illness. And now, in a time of great wealth and prosperity, the arrival of a deadly virus to the quarantined heights of the upper levels. The terror spreading among the unprepared Sky Dwellers for a problem that modern technology no longer had a cure.
The answers, miles below, on the alien planet occupied by the Groundliers where some unexplainable evil was at work. All remaining solutions relied on the success of Jàl’s project. General Dimitri had sought out Jàl because of whispered rumours of a breakthrough in a quantum field Jàl developed. The intriguing possibilities behind the Mixed Reality project attracted the General’s attention.
After failed attempts to bypass the impenetrable barrier dividing the levels, the General sought out Jàl. The Mixed Reality theory, his last hope. Within the confines of the virtual world, certain laws of physics no longer applied. The General, extrapolating Jàl's theory, surmised that a person entering the virtual world could exit into the groundliers levels, the bio-shield, theoretically, would no longer enter the equation.
This new angle of thought focused Jàl on a journey to turn theory into practicality and elevated his standing in the public arena. The survival of the Sky Dwellers counted on his genius.
His first order of business, find a route past the barrier separating the lowest hundred floors from the towering cities above, the second order, program a routine to train the General’s death squads, preparing them to fight in a foreign environment.
The experiments were costly. The Sky-Dwellers lacked the rare materials to expand the project. Backroom deals brokered with sworn enemies, levels below, procured the lacking resources but cost excessive amounts, the price of the project rocketed into the trillions of dollars. As wealthy as the ruling classes were, that amount was simply beyond their reach. Thus the risked gatherings and extravagant banquets. A means to solicit funds from the other elite families of New Market.
As repayment to all those who contributed, promises of unparalleled wealth, the best motivator for people living above the clouds, for one could never have enough riches. Once the General and his death squads reached the surface, brought an end to the virus and stabilized the structural threat, wealth in both rare materials and exotic foods awaited those who participated.
Failure was not an option. Survival of the Cloud Dwellers and possibly, even the despised Middle Class, depended on a solution. The entire civilization as the sky people knew it, rested in one man’s hands.
The tremor resided. Jàl’s headache eased. His world remained dark behind closed eyes while he retreated inside his mind. Ribbons of numbers and ensuing calculations scrolled past the backside of his eye lids while he reviewed new theories and endless possibilities. The trajectory of his thoughts, ignoring the pain ringing in his skull and instead chasing the tremors as they withdrew. In the accidental darkness, he searched for an explanation.
The abrupt shaking of his shoulder broke into his trance. Roake stood by his side, levels of concern etched into the wrinkles of her forehead. His eyes swept across her face then shifted to scour the room.
Blinking back to awareness, the fear laid bare on the faces of the visiting socialites settled into focus. Ashen skin surrounded fear filled eyes, the gathered silently pleading for him to act, to save their way of life before it was too late.
Jàl lips formed a nervous smile. The gesture obscured by the bright blue cloth mask draped from the tip of his nose to the underside of his chin. “I’m worried too,” his words sounding muffled through the mask, and then with a dash of confidence, he cleared his throat.
“But, I’m close,” he said louder, projecting his words outward. “Roake Engel. The finest of General Dimitri’s special forces can attest. She’s witnessed the ground breaking program I’m developing. With her guidance, we’ve run a series of trials in mock ups of streets programmed to duplicate the pit where the groundliers live.”
Jàl glanced toward the General. Dimitri nodded. The cloth shielding the General’s lower face wrinkled upward as he returned the smile. Jàl switched gears. “And with your help…and money. Lets not forget, that,” he said to round of nervous laughter. “We will reach beneath the barrier and stop these attacks. Life as we know it will continue.”
Alone in his autonomous car, Jàl sat rigid in the back seat. The worried looks cast his way after the tremor, tugged at his conscious. What had he promised. The breakthrough he spoke of was far from a solution. A twisted version of quantum engineering with an overlap of computer programming coupled with the hybrid implant that allowed him to enter the holographic Mixed Reality game he programmed.
Did he physically enter the 9th-dimensional program or was the overload with the implant forcing his mind to believe in the impossible. And what about Roake. She traveled the holographic game with him.
“I’m close.” What the hell made him think that he could solve the unsolvable and find a doorway to the groundlier’s city? The question quickly dismissed by his over-sized ego.
Jàl Condor. That’s who. His spirits lifted high above the burden that weighed on his shoulders. The General had sought him out because he was who he was. In the latter part of the 23 century, Jàl failed to think of any one person even lightyears close to his intelligence. But would that be enough? Is this where he failed?
He strongly believed that a person would be able to enter the gateway on the upper level and then transgress through the streets of framework and find a similar programmed gateway exiting onto the Groundliers planet. If possible, one would thus bypass the bio-shield and prevent being incinerated. He began to test the theory by entering the Gateway and exploring the virtual world. With this thinking, a new problem arose. With out actual specs of the groundliers world to built into the program, he lacked real-time coordinates to program a second doorway.
This began the rush to collect shards of information required to replicate the ancient world or at least portions for the algorithms to render streets and buildings. The lack of information was daunting. The archives from the first inhabitants of the planet failed to rise with the influx of progression as the world raced toward the sky.
General Dimitri’s squads ran sorties scoring information depots of the mid-level and bit by bit the information was fed into Jàl’s massive manifold of computers. The program ran day and night to sort and fit and build the pieces of the forgotten civilization needed to develop a working schematic.
That was when the headaches and the tremors began. The fierce pain hammered Jàl’s brain and the towering city of the Sky Dwellers shook. Leaving Jàl and the members of the elite ruling families to believe that the Groundliers had uncovered the Sky Dwellers plans and began measures to stop the intrusion.
The simple fact that any form of contagion survived outside of the earthly levels of the city was unthinkable. The bio-shield’s sole purpose was to eradicate all types of organic molecules to rise above the lower hundreds of ground floors of the Groundliers world. A provision put in place by the Mid-level to eradicate human disease and suffering.
Yet something did. The Mid-Level developed symptoms years earlier and of course no cure was available. The virus climbed to the exalted heights of the Upper-Level of New Market with no known defences to fight the airborne spores, the disease spread. How had the groundliers bypassed the impenetrable shield and set the contagion free? History told of their lack of knowledge, but centuries can bring advances. And why would the Groundliers attempt such an attack?
“AILEN,” Jàl spoke to his Artificial Intelligence Learning Entity. “replay the codes for our last adventure into the Annex mainframe.” He commanded the AI operating system in the car. Jàl closed his eyes. In the dark recess of his mind, a screen flashed to life. Attentively he studied line after line of the passing code. The breaks and dashes forming a life like video of Roake moving about the streets played out in the computers memory.
Jàl marvelled at the sight of the complex screening. The game unfolding vividly behind his closed eyes. The process refined with his latest update to his neural implant. Somehow the combination of neural pulses and his human mind melded. Why hadn’t Roake experienced the same sensation.? He held back from out right asking her but he could tell when they participated in the mock ups, she lacked the ability to focus her mind in the same fashion.
And nor would he tell her. At least not until he figured out why the twinning of the labs computer and his mind synced together. But that was a problem for another day. The question at hand was how far could he travel once he entered the realm of the 9-dimensional substrate. The exit to his lab was programmed but could he also program an exit anywhere he chose?
Jàl’s holo-car docked. The AI interrupted his ruminations. “You’re home Jàl,” the car’s AI pinged his thoughts.
“Thanks AILEN,” Jàl thought as he climbed from the car. The docks lights lit his path to his loft. Jàl’s mind dwelled on the communication with his personal AI. Had he spoken out loud in answering the AI or was the response a projection of his thoughts? He stood gazing down at the car. He hadn’t, had he.
Another by product of the implant, he supposed. A seamless non-verbal connection to his computer. Any lesser person would worry to death about mind poisoning from an errant implant. Not his style. Instead he computed the possibilities and calculated ways to take advantage of the odd situation. How far would his mind control go?
Another question to be answered privately. Not with Roake and certainly not with the General. Too much information in the wrong hands could cause him to suffer unbearable restraints. Something he had no intentions of doing. He had to tread carefully around Roake as he played with the limitations of his new found power.
Jàl wondered the open floor of his lab. His train of thought locked in step with the computer manifolds. Human neurons and computer-generated breaks and dashes simultaneously linked. The wonder of this new way of surfing the net growing more familiar each day. The transitioning to this new way of powered thought more intriguing than frightening.
Jàl tested the conjoined computing power. One of the lines in the simulation he found troubling. At the end of the session, Roake’s comment on the Verge remaining by the games back door. Sniffing, examining the brick wall where he and Roake had escaped.
The program was designed to learn and adapt, but the Verge’s pursuit should have ended when the pair escaped the game. The program should have reset and resorted back to the default settings.
Jàl stood still in the middle of the floor. His eyes closed while he replayed the final sequence of the game. The Verge hoovered around the wall refusing to leave, the games program continuing past the shutdown command. Jàl’s hand unconsciously went to his neck. The area scarred over from the cerebral implant. Rubbing the slight mound under his skin, he dwelled on the computations to allow the game to readjust and change his codes.
A nanosecond of electricity traveled his nerves sparking in his brain. The rush of computing adrenaline, so swift and so unexpected, Jàl’s thoughts went dark.
The Verge stood transfixed, staring across the gap occupied by the shimmering outline of the building. The exterior walls wavering between solid and translucent. Jàl crouched beside a rendered park bench. The program’s simulated objects real to his touch but on closer inspection, he rubbed his hand against the faux wood seat, but not quite.
The visuals in the game began from minute shreds of information gleaned from a forgotten past and the renderings began with an incredible amount of artistic licence, this complete section, a product of Jàl’s imagination. His imagining of what the groundliers lair should look like.
The better the information, the more detailed the wall or building or street. Unfortunately, the lack of proper archives left little to build on. The algorithms learned with each new piece added, adjusted the outlines, refreshed the streets, rebuilt complete blocks, but everything was supposition until enough of the enough of the pieces could be found to create a stable block with streets and buildings synced to reality to allow for the installation of a door into the lowest level.
Movement showed across the wide gap, the building materials fluctuating between solid and ethereal, leaving short snatches of exposure across the lot. The Verge continued to monitor the street where Jàl crouched, but the monsters stalled. Their blank oversized eyes roamed back and forth. The broad flat snout of their noses tilted skyward, to sniff out his sent, he supposed, but the monsters failed to lock onto his location. Like they were blind to him?
Holding tight to the shelter offered by the bench, Jàl felt to his side for the automatic firearm. His fingers found only air. Puzzled, he risked a glance. No rifle. Panic forced him to swing his head searching for the weapon. He would never venture this far from the lab’s doorway without protection.
His chest thumped with an accelerating heartbeat. Sweat beaded beneath his cap. A second quick scan confirmed his fear. No rifle. Jàl returned his eyes to the Verge gathered across the block. The beasts hadn’t moved. Slowing his heartbeat, he closed his eyes and concentrated. Waves of dashes and zeros scrolled across the darkness of his mind. The code forming a picture in his mind. Before his brain tracked the weapon, the ear-shattering shriek of the Verge pounded against the outside of his head.
Jàl’s eyes flashed open. In the seconds that followed, he saw the outstretched arms of the Verge point across the gap toward him. Suddenly, the beasts acknowledged his presence. The building shimmered translucent. One of the beasts leaped in his direction attempting to cross the unstable space. Jàl lost sight of the creature as the building’s walls surged solid. A blood-curdling scream rose above the street.
When the walls of the building flickered translucent again, the sheared body of the beast lay half in, half out of the buildings foundation. The remaining Verge squealed at the sight of their fallen comrade before refocusing on Jàl. The intermittent flashes where the building faded showed the Verge lumbering away from the far side and following the sidewalk. The monster's eyes raised and locked on their prey.
Panic climbed Jàl’s body. He had no way to fight…that troubled thought led to another. What happened to Roake? Where did she disappear?
The shrieks of the Verge grew louder as the monsters trudged to the near corner. Jàl shook away the fear threatening to freeze his movements. He waited for a final glance of his enemies then twisted around and bent over his knees, scootched along the base of the building and away from the alley. Keeping his low to avoid further detection.
Jàl willed his bent legs to gather speed. When the hair on the back of his neck began to rise from the closing Verge, he jumped to his feet and ran. All thoughts of hiding forgotten. The edge of a second building rushed into view. Rounding the corner, he raced. Several steps in he realized his error. A brick wall sealed off his exit.
Fear began to rise with his heartbeat. Suddenly, his breathing became more natural. The wall he faced was different. The feeling and texture lacked the usual computer rendering. The edges of the brick were uneven, porous. Gaps showed where the mortar had crumbled. Jàl stood transfixed. His mind completely ignoring the threat chasing close behind.
Curiously he stretched a hand. His fingertips grazed the wall when a thundering cry from behind caused him to jump. A scream left Jàl’s mouth in anticipation of a collision with the bricks. The cry choked off when a void in the wall opened, and he fell to the other side, landing on his knees.
Jàl spun and prepared to be overrun by the Verge. Instead, a brick wall blocked his view. No sign or sound of the Verge followed. Jàl stood and brushed the dirt off his knees. Strange noises filtered to his ears. The loud buzz of anxious conversation and the…Jàl tried to place the other sounds. Mechanical, similar to the firing of combustible engines?
He slowly turned away from the wall. Crowds of people were gathering on the street facing him. The men and women dressed oddly. Several hands pointed in his direction. Rectangular boxes rolled past a gathering crowd. Strange noises overwhelmed his hearing. Rumbling sounds emanated from the glass and metal creations.
Jàl froze. His jaw hung open as he switched his gaze from the weird vehicles to the faces of the strange people. Their mouths moved in unison. He struggled to make out the words. The people’s voices seemed to be coming from far away.
The stilted, monotone voice of the AI leaked into corners of Jàl’s dream, chasing off the darkness.
“We have a visitor. Lieutenant Roake Engel has arrived.” AILEN’s voice announced. Jàl opened his eyes. His head lolled on his shoulder. Slow steps to awareness caused his fingers to grip the padded arm of the chair. Jàl remained seated and gazed about the loft. His brain fuzzy.
“Say again,” he ordered the AI.
“Lieutenant Roake Engel has arrived.” The AI repeated.
Something is not right. The thought filled Jàl's mind. Why he was just standing beside the…he glanced back down at the chair then up to the computer manifold.
And what happened to the people in the street? The image slipped from his mind.
A shake of his head sent the muddled thoughts away. So many long hours without sleep. He had plunged too deeply into the General’s project. The Upper Level’s plan, he corrected, to save the city of New Market. That must be it, he realized.
The mounting pressure he felt was immense, the challenge exacting a heavy toll on his body and mind. No doubt his consciousness was protecting his sanity and health. To avoid burn out. But what brought Roake at this late hour? The two weren’t scheduled to meet until morning.
Jàl shook his head again. Strange things were happening.
“AILEN. What time is it?”
“ O Seven Hundred, Jàl. Is something wrong?”
“You’re very funny AILEN. I only arrived home minutes ago. How can it be morning already?”
“You did not program me with a sense of humour. Therefore I do not joke. Jàl, are you okay? Your consciousness has been offline for the past 5 hours and 23 minutes.”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just tired. Working too hard is all.” Jàl mumbled his response. “Open the hangar door and escort Miss Engel inside, please.”
“What exactly are we doing here?” Roake huffed out the words. Her breath raspy. The lieutenant and Jàl sat crunched behind a tangle of discarded gas-powered automobiles. The shrill of the Verge shattered the eery silence.
Jàl peered out from behind the cover of the rusted metal atrocities then back at Roake.
“I need a better understanding of the layout for the Groundliers world. The information I’ve gleaned from the archives is not good enough to replicate their world.” Jàl covered his ears as the Verge’s screeches grew in intensity. The pack of monsters closing in on their prey.
“Well, this is the crappiest route you’ve taken us down so far.” Roake bitched. “Why don’t you let those damn monsters have your playbook and save them time tracking us.”
“Who knew this led to a dead end. The problem with the bits of archived information is, it's not complete.” Jàl rebuked. He considered the sight at the end of the alley. Incomplete programming leaving the buildings and roads unfinished. A virtual dead end in every sense of the word. “Sorry.” He apologized. “I’ll be more careful next time.”
“Next time!” Roake exploded. “There won’t be a next time. I think we’re about to find out if this game can kill us.” The escalating shrill of the Verge echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings, the screeching moans seeping into their skulls, drowning out all brain activity. Roake’s hands flew to cover her ears.
“‘I CAN’T TAKE THAT AWFUL NOISE ANY LONGER,” she hollered. “IF IT DOESN’T STOP, I MAY KILL MYSELF BEFORE THE DAMN MONSTERS HAVE THE CHANCE!”
Jàl closed his eyes against the deafening screams of the games protagonists. A map of the city materialized in the blackness. Behind closed eye lids, a partial map of the area materialized. Pieces of vital information gathered from this latest escapade were quickly added to the incomplete street view. The digital map shimmered then refreshed. Jàl computed alternative routes to escape the Verge.
“Now is not the time to zone out.” He heard Roake’s anxious cries. “Damn it Jàl. We need to move.”
“Follow me.” Jàl’s eyes shot open. He tugged on the sleeve of Roake’s armoured vest. The new route led deeper among the tangle of ancient, discarded metal atrocities. Stopping at the base of a tower of precariously stacked scrap metal, Jàl swung open a long rusted door and pushed Roake inside. He clambered in behind, bumping into Roake in the process.
“Through there,” he said pointed across her body at the opposite side of the multi seated auto. The tower of refuse shook. Jàl glanced over his shoulder. The monstrous bulk of a Verge slammed into the closed door. The monster’s foaming mouth covering the glass petitioning the two parties with slobber.
“The door’s stuck,” The sound of Roake’s voice strained as she pushed against the opposite door handle. J al felt her body crush against his as she braced her back, raised her leg and grunted. Jàl turned to watch. The tower of rusted autos stacked precariously above rattled as Roake’s foot collided with the door. The dull creak of breaking glass from behind caused the hairs on the back of Jàl’s neck to stand. Ignoring his curiosity to look behind, Jàl leaned tight to Roake.
“We really need to move,” he urged the Lieutenant. The sickening odour from the monsters drifting into the broken window.
The Death Squad Lieutenant leaned harder into his body fighting for leverage. Roake’s efforts forced Jàl closer to the broken window and the threatening Verge. Claw like fingers raked across his scalp. A shiver ran the length of his spine.
“Now would be a good time to bust open that door.” Jàl spoke rapidly trying to fight down the rush of adrenaline he felt from creeping into his voice.
A loud roar escaped Roake’s lungs. Her foot shot forward. The rusted hinges holding the door protested as they gave way. The door inched open. Roake rolled off her feet, launching her body, shoulder first into the bare metal frame. The door scraped open and sagged.
The sharp claws swiped at the side of Jàl’s head. The contact forcing him to dive into Roake. Roake’s head collided with the partially closed door. The weight of Jàl’s body crushing her into the rusted metal. The combination of bodies crumpled into the partial opening.
“Shit,” Roake started. She untangled from the mix of limbs and climbed to her feet. A stone wall covered with weird painted pictographs confronted the pair. Roake swayed, facing the wall, her hand clamped to the side of her neck. Blood seeped between her fingers from a wound opened near her implant.
“You alright?” Jàl asked scooting past the Lieutenant. His hand grabbed for a tarnished knob protruding from the frame of a wooden door set in the wall. The knob twisted. Jàl yanked on the handle pushing the door inward.
“After you,” he barked at Roake, literally throwing her through the opening. The darkness on the interior of the building cut into slices by shafts of stray sunlight leaking down from a patch work roof. Jàl grabbed Roake’s hand and pulled her across the room and away from the screeching Verge waiting on the out side of the wooden door.
Pausing for a brief moment, he closed his eyes and probed his mind for a layout of the building. His attempt failed. His knowledge of the world he was trying to recreate too minimal. Swinging his head he surveyed the interior with the help of the beams of light. Doors studded the exterior walls on all sides. In a effort to out distance the Verge, he set a course for the door farthest away from the alley where the pair entered.
Splintering wood indicated the arrival of the Verge into the dark interior of the building. Jàl pulled harder on Roake’s arm. The two stumbled across the floor. Digital dust floated up from their movements adding to the darkness filling the air.
The next door consisted of rust streaked metal. Jàl tried the handle. The door swung out. Shoving Roake ahead, he paused and turned to look back. Dark silhouettes flitted among the dark and dust. The high pitched noise of the Verge tore at his eardrums.
Jàl stood in the doorway. He pushed past the piercing screams and forced his mind to concentrate. His brows furrowed while he locked his eyes and his thoughts on the approaching Verge while a trio of the monsters sulked through the dust.
Jàl clenched his fists. His face reddening as he narrowed his thoughts to stopping the monsters. A clawed hand sliced the dust inches above his face. Jàl stood his ground, his body rigid, his mind focused. The large flat jaw of a monster with its glassy round eyes materialized from the dust inches from his face.
Staring into the Verge’s eyes, Jàl noticed a twitch in the monster’s features. The raised claw paused in the air. A growl of frustration joined the eery cries of the trio, their movements stopped. Jàl held his concentration. From the corner of his eye he caught the raised claw slowly start to descend toward his head.
The sizzle of ions proceeded a red hole that appeared in the lead Verge. The air tingled. A second monster fell. Then the third toppled to the dust covered floor. A hand yanked Jàl’s shoulder pulling him clumsily backwards. His footing failed as the floor raised up to catch him. A plume of dust puffed outward. His vision obscured, his ears recording the sounds of the creaking metal of the rusted hinges of the door closing followed by a loud scraping of metal on metal.
He sat crumpled in the pile of dust waiting for the air to settle. His breathing deep as he struggled to slow his rapidly heart.
“Thanks Roake,” he finally muttered. “I did it. Did you see. I stopped the beasts. Mind you it was only for a second, but…”
“That certainly was impressive. You were almost beast bait.” An unfamiliar voice answered.
Jàl jumped to his feet. His head spun, his eyes probed into the settling dust seeking out the strange voice. The dust settled enough revealing an oddly clad woman bent over Roake. The woman’s hands probed the open wound on his friend’s neck.
Jàl bent near the woman. His fingers touching the blood leaking from Roake’s wound. Rubbing the sticky liquid between his fingers, he pondered the scary reality. The blood was real. Tangible. Roake may be right. They could possibly die in this computer generated world. His gaze settled on the woman who shot the Verge. “Who are you?” Jàl asked when the surprise wore off.
“Your lucky angel, it would seem,” the woman replied. “This is one nasty cut your friend has. Help me get her to her feet. We must move. More of the beasts will be sure to come.”
Jàl grabbed Roake and with the help of the stranger, she rose to her feet. A dazed film clouded her eyes. Blinking away the confusion, she glanced at the new woman and then Jàl.
“Who is she?” Roake asked.
Jàl shrugged his shoulders. His confusion as apparent as hers.
“My lucky angel, it would seem.”
Jàl supported one side of the injured Roake and the strange woman climbed under Roake’s free arm. The three threaded their way through dilapidated buildings, most digitally incomplete. Others, computer renderings of blank facades towering above the nondescript streets. The structures lacking the depth or details of real world buildings. Jàl took note of the changes to the rising street scape while he and the games avatar struggled under the weight of Roake’s semi-conscious body.
“Do you have a name?” Jàl asked when the pair stopped so he could catch his breath.
“No.” The Avatar replied. “We must continue. The beasts are close.”
The trio crept across deserted alleys and turned at dead ends of nothingness. Routes left impassable by the lack of information yet to be acquired for the program to complete the groundlier’s world. All the while, the screeches of the Verge echoed around them. Several blocks passed. The Avatar stopped at the entrance to a glass and concrete tower. The buildings upper floors fluctuating in and out of spacial time. Another building waiting in limbo due to the shortage of archived files. The words on the building blurred and unreadable.
Jàl plodded silently. The numerous questions he had for his lucky angel bitten off at the tip of his tongue. The temptation to grill the woman eating at his thoughts, but Roake’s safety came first, so he moved silently as the two carried his friend away from the threat of the games monsters.
Inside the building, the woman led them to a long set of stairs. When their feet touched the first step, the treads began moving upward. Jàl stared around fascinated by the new discoveries he had seen on the trip. His brain busy absorbing the workings of the games intricate program. A game he designed to replicate a long forgotten history.
Rare snippets of unearthed information he continuously fed into the program to aid in developing the base for the lowest level of New Market. But how all the pieces fit together was something new to him. The lair of the Groundliers. Truly a world of mystery.
The long forgotten city that was deemed unimportant over the millenniums and lost from memory with by the ever rising population as it soared skyward. The bottom levels becoming less relevant over time. Now, most of the archives were destroyed. The old computer files long since garnered obsolete by the ever evolving technology of the city’s inhabitants. The files deemed useless and discarded.
Until now. Vital information that could possibly save the Upper Level, lost over advancing generations. With each new piece of history discovered, Jàl adjusted the games programs setting the algorithms to design a close approximation of the Groundliers home at the base of the towering city.
If time allowed. How quickly could he reconstruct a detailed layout of a city built more than two millennium ago with the limited information. And did he really need the full layout of the lower level? Maybe a small grouping of buildings along a solitary street might suffice. The section would have to be factually complete, but still. A starting block that he could work with to open a doorway and elude the field of energy that restricted movement to the lower level. This might allow the General’s squads to by-pass the barrier and prevent the destruction of his own world.
The back door into the game should work. If he had a detailed schematic to show exactly where to place the portal, then he might well be able to open a second back door and gain access to the bottom level thus avoiding the impenetrable shield of the barrier. The logic made sense. If he can enter the 9-dimensional game through a programmed opening in his lab, then he should be able to work within the games framework to open a portal to the lower level?
That brought his thoughts back to the ongoing and expanding game. As the computer simulation grew, the bits of floating data were gathered and collected in a sphere shaped hard drive. The drive hidden somewhere in the reemerging city. A plan he had come to realize was a bad idea. And the reason he and Roake kept traveling the levels of the game. The end prize. The sphere of information he christened the globe.
A powerful search engine he introduced into the game to gather and sort the infinite number of floating fragments of bytes needed to reconstruct a virtual copy of the groundliers world in Mixed Reality. And with the globes knowledge, hopefully a second doorway and a route past the Verge. The games mainframe ground endlessly, building then changing and rebuilding the city with each morsel of new information to compose the unknown city.
When he started the program, the globe was set at the centre of the program busily snatching passing bits and bytes, but with the constantly changing and updating parameters, the centre shifted. And then came the idea for the Verge. A design he initially added to test the Generals death squads and prepare them for the day the Sky Dwellers confronted the Groundliers.
The concept of the Verge, a sketchy caricature composed of humans and monsters borne from fractured pictures he had found on decomposing antique hard drives. Hideous aberrations of humanity on the verge of an evolution gone awry. His beliefs of what the lower level inhabitants now resembled.
Another bad idea, he now realized. As the games programming expanded and rebooted, the monster’s scope of comprehension grew. A form of accidental artificial intelligence derived from the globes shifting algorithms. At first the Verge were easy to avoid. Dumb and slow. Now. Shortly after he and Roake enter the back door into the game, the monsters become alert and hunted for them. Not very amusing but an unavoidable product of his 9-dimensional experiment.
Jàl’s feet quit moving as the escalator crested the next floor. He stumbled out of his reverie. He blinked back to awareness and glanced down at his feet. The moving stair case had stopped. Lost in the vast universe of his thoughts, he had ascended three floors of the building in a trance. Should he be worried, he wondered. The events of his glitching consciousness were becoming more frequent.
“This way,” he caught the words of the strange woman. Jàl cast his eyes about. This level of the building was sparse. Barren. No furnishing, no colours, nothing. The games program hadn’t enough information to complete the buildings interior.
“In here.” The women instructed, swinging open a nondescript door. Lights flared, brightening the room. An accumulation of random objects lay scattered about.
“Where do find you this stuff?” Jàl asked. The lack of furnishing outside the room making him curious.
“I collect them on my travels throughout the city.” The women returned a puzzled look. “How do you come by your possessions?”
“I…” Jàl fell silent. He helped lower Roake onto a long bench then moved about the confined space sifting through the woman’s collection.
Jàl rummaged, watching from the corner of his eye while the woman scurried about the stacks of items. With expert hands, the stranger tended to Roake’s wound. Jàl sat out of the way catching his breath. When the woman finished, he decided his questions could wait no longer.
“How long have you been here?” He asked.
The Avatar looked at him. Her face a mask of confusion. “Since the beginning, I guess.”
“The beginning of what?”
“The beginning. I have no memory of a time before that. Why?” The avatar eyed him suspiciously.
“Okay, okay.” Jàl raised his palms. “Curious. That’s all.” He marvelled at the digital avatar. Her appearance unlike the Verge or computer generated bodies of the population of the game. “You’re different then the other entities in the game. You look so…real,” he mouthed the words in way of an apology for staring so blatantly at the avatar.
“Do you have a name?” He asked.
The Avatar furrowed her brow and shook her head in confusion. “Who is here to call me by name?” She countered.
“Good point,” Jàl conceded. “None the less. I will need to refer to you somehow.” His earlier description of the Avatar clinging to his thoughts.
“Ree-al.” He pronounced the name out loud. Dragging out the word and leaning heavier on the first syllable to give the name an exotic flair to match the avatar’s looks. The games particles glowing ethereal, shimmer surrounding the avatar’s body reminding Jàl of ancient Greek goddesses.
“Ree-al,” He repeated. “Why are you here?”
“I observe and record the changes to the data on this section. After every dark period, I scour the city. The new additions to the program are added to the level’s cache.”
“A dark period?” Jàl inquired. His understanding of the intricate workings inside the mainframe familiar but yet suddenly foreign to the expanding layers of programming used to control the task of building the layout for the groundliers forgotten world.
“The level grows dark and still. Frozen. An eternity of blackness. When the lights return, I wonder the city recording the changes.”
“So you’re like a daemon.” Jàl explained the ancient terminology. “You hoover in the background and collect and sort bytes of information.”
“I do what I do.” The avatar answered.
“Are there other beings living in the city?”
“Not on this level. The beasts are the only other travellers in this section.”
“Do the beasts have another name?”
The Avatar shrugged. “Beasts is the only name that comes to mind. Until I overheard you refer to them as beasts, they were nameless. I do not need titles to identify them.”
“Why are they here? What’s their purpose?” Jàl asked.
“They just are. They arrive when ever new streams of data enter this section. I stop the beasts from corrupting or destroying the updates.”
Jàl thought of her description. The Avatar described the Verge as if they were a virus or maybe even a malware program. The thought gave him pause. The Verge were designed to replicate groundliers. Their sole purpose in the game to use for training purposes. What aberrations in the algorithms could cause them seek out and destroy certain additions to the expanding data base.
Then reality gripped Jàl thoughts. He was physically inside a 9-dimensional game talking to a digital avatar. Perhaps her understanding and his differed.
Then a second, more interesting possibility occurred. In the games involving artificial intelligence, could the algorithms adjust as the program grew and adapt from the original programming and if they did, why? To what end. Questions for a later time.
“How do you avoid the hordes of beasts when you travel the city?” Jàl’s curiosity grew. How did the woman survive locked in this game with the Verge?
“I am online with their thoughts. I know what they think so I can avoid them. I was alerted to their presence once you entered this cluster.” Ree-al arched an eyebrow. “You don’t sense them?” She asked.
Jàl considered her words. Maybe he did. His senses tensed seconds before the monsters became visible. Could this be what she meant.
“I never thought about that.” He admitted. Roake moaned diverting his interest.
“Do they not appear to you like the rest of the people in this city?”
“No. They look instinctively different. You are not from around here, are you?” The computer avatar asked suspiciously.
Jàl thought on his answer. His hand rocked side to side. “Yes and no. Not from here but not very far away.”
“Can you help us escape? I need to get my friend medical attention.” Jàl motioned to the dazed Roake. A mask of confusion settled over Ree-al’s features.
“Where would you escape? The city fluctuates. The streets change but there are limits. There is no where to run that the Verge will not find you. They are dangerous. They want to destroy what is built. And even if you can bypass them, the streets are incomplete and trail off into the abyss. So where would you go?”
Jàl chewed his lip. How could he explain. This entity was obviously a creation of the system’s evolving database. An avatar watching the program expand and fighting to protect the new creation from the destruction of the Verge. A type of anti-virus if one thought of the Verge as a virus. An important string in the ever changing parameters of dots and dashes on the computer's mainframe.
Jàl regarded the computer simulation intently. An interesting by product of the evolving intelligence he programmed into the frame work.
“There’s a doorway. An opening that lets me cross from this world back to mine.” He watched Ree-al’s face while she assimilated the information.
“An outside world. Interesting. What happens in this other world?”
“I don’t have time to explain, I need to get my friend to a doctor. We can talk about it when I return.”
“You have a funny way with words. What is a doctor? There are no doctor’s here.”
“Not yet. Although it may be a necessity that needs to be added to the program.” Jàl conceded.
“Where is this door?” Ree-al asked. Jàl closed his eyes. The map of the city shimmered into view. He searched the data, screens of overviews passed behind his closed eyelids. He focused on the brick wall. Nano seconds passed. A red beacon flashed on the overview of the map then the screens of bytes reconfigured. The map zoomed to the location of the door forming a picture in Jàl’s mind.
“I know where this lays.” Ree-al interrupted. “Not far from here.”
Jàl opened one eye and peered at the computer simulation. “You can read my mind.”
“Of course not,” Ree-al stated in her monotone voice. Her tone even, neither judging nor condescending. “But you momentarily connected with the mainframe for your search.” She left the rest unsaid.
As if on cue, shrill cries of Verge echoed from lower in the building and rose among the empty floors. Jàl shot a confused glance at Ree-al.
“How did they find us. I thought…” The question trailed off.
“This space is hidden. I block my movements from the Beasts searching pulses, but you and your friend are new to this section. When you searched for the door, your thoughts emit a stream of data the beasts track, so the percentage of them locating us was greatly increased.”
Jàl scrambled to lift Roake to her feet. “You said you know where the doorway exists. That it is close. Take us.” He grunted under the weight of Roake’s body.
Ree-al led to the far end of the room. A door materialized in the blank wall. Jàl strained under the weight of the injured Roake. The avatar disappeared through the opening. Jàl hurried behind. His breath caught. He teetered on the edge of the doors threshold. Three stories of wall fell away to the street below.
Sticking his head out, he looked to the sides. The Avatar had vanished.
“Step through the door. You will be alright.” Ree-al’s voice spoke behind him.
Jàl’s head spun around. “We’re three stories up. The fall will kill us.”
“Trust me.” Ree-al assured. “You will not.” She said while stepping to Roake’s side and settling under the injured soldier’s arm.
Jàl inched his foot past the edge of the opening testing Ree-al’s theory. Slowly sliding his foot past the floor and into empty space.
The high pitched squeal of the Verge reverberated loudly, echoing off the interior walls. The excitement in their wails grew louder. A sign that the monsters were closing in on their prey.
“This had better be a dream,” Jàl cursed under his breath, closed his eyes and took a step of faith. The surface under the soles of his shoes changed from particles of space to solid. Braced for the fall, Jàl willed his feet forward. His heart raced. Peeking from behind clamped eyelids, the familiar surroundings of Manchester street greeted him.
Jàl glanced up from the base of the old bank building. They had crossed back to the starting point of the games construction. He let his eyes roam the surroundings. Several blocks south he recognized the mouth of the alley that led to the hidden door.
“Wow.” He exclaimed. A rush of pent up breath blasted from his mouth. He glanced at the ground beneath his feet then up to where the trio exited the third floor room. How in the …His head swung back and forth at the constantly transforming recreation of Manchester street.
The city scape familiar yet somewhat different. Jàl looked on in fascination. The brush with the Verge momentarily forgotten. Sections of the previously blank voids of the streets appearance shimmered as the games algorithms forged to fill in missing details. J al’s mind reeled, overwhelmed by the changes. Could the program be close to completing this section of the groundlier’s world. Jàl locked his mind with the games mainframe to search for new additions to the program.
Excitement changed to horror. Clusters of Verge materialized in the evolving scenery. The monsters chewing and ripping at the budding foundations, eating the digital mass, slowing the buildings growth. The creatures paused in their feeding. As a collective, the heads of the monsters turned in his direction.
“You need to hurry,” Ree-al’s words reminded him of the dire situation. The Verge stopped their frenzied destructive ways and joined in a chorus of wails and shrieks. The creatures leaping from the buildings and gathering on the sidewalks before starting a slow amble in the direction of the escaping trio.
“Down the street is the alley you seek. Find your door,” she urged, pointing away from the bank and the materializing data forming the new building. “I will hold the beasts while you save your friend.”
“How?” Jàl asked. The fabric of Ree-al’s form grew translucent becoming absorbed into a blinding flash of light. Out of the brightness she stepped. Armour coating covered her body. In her hands a large bulbous gun. As the Verge closed the distance, Ree-al fired. Single flashes of red light pulsed toward the approaching horde. The guns ray tearing digital matter from the creatures. The Verge’s cries intensified.
Jàl clamped his free hand to his ear to block the noise. He gave the Avatar a fleeting glance then straightened under Roake’s weight. With Jàl’s support, Roake limped along to keep pace. The pair hustled for the brick wall containing the keypad and back door to reality.
Rusted metal automobiles littered the street. The scene different from the duos last time in the games construct when they raced away from bank and the waiting Verge. The sidewalks in this version were bare of people, but layered with building debris and garbage.
Jàl avoided the cluttered walkways opting for the spaces among the abandoned metal cars of centuries past. The shrill cries of the Verge became unbearable. Jàl let go of Roake. Both hands clamped to his ears before he collapsed to his knees.
Seconds passed. He concentrated to push the crippling noise from his head. Gritting his teeth, he forced his legs to lift his body. His hands tight to his ears, he spun and faced in the direction he left Ree-al. The cries and shrieks of the Verge faded. The avatar stood grounded in the street. The pulses of her gun beating back the virus attempts.
“Let me help you up.” He said, bending down to lift Roake. The effects of the Verge written over the Lieutenants face. Her skin pale and clammy. Her pupils tilted back revealing the whites of her eyes. Jàl pulled Roake to her feet, shot a fleeting glance in the Avatar’s direction then clambered down the street for the alley and the doorway to safety.
Jàl watched the replay of the games last scenes moments before he and Roake stepped through the safety of the back door. The animation on the screen frighteningly real.
Ree-al prevailed in the fight. The threat by the Verge was pushed away. The shell of a new floor, an upper floor, Jàl judged from the layout of the structure, grew from digital matter. Fascinated, Jàl sat frozen in front of the bank of computers, his eyes glued to the monitors. His thoughts and hopes, buoyed by the mesmerizing details of the recreation. The computer’s algorithm calculated the degree of accuracy the new projection contained. The scale rose past 85 percent. This building, now the closest he’d come to replicating an actual component from the groundliers world, using the fragmented bits of information available.
His heart rate pumped. Another tool in his search for a doorway into the groundliers world was close at hand. The rate of the compilation increased. Walls shimmered then solidified, rendered windows digitally sketched into the exterior walls transformed from pixels to glass and steel. The image shimmered as the construction came together.
Seconds away from the completion of the building, the lab shook. The shock wave wormed into Jàl’s thoughts. The presence of the room’s vibrations searing his brain before his world went blank.
Roake groaned from the couch. Jàl’s eyes snapped open. His head resting on the desk of monitors. Shaking away the drowsiness, he fought to get a grasp on his surroundings. The monitors glared back at him silently. Slow recognition returned. He focused on the screens. There, he thought. The realistic 3-d rendering of a new building.
Noise from across the room grabbed his attention. The darkness outside the lofts windows registered. It had been early afternoon when he sat at the monitors. How long had he been out? He quickly glanced back at monitors. The time stamp on the computer screen told of evening. Hours had passed. Once again he had blacked out. The episodes grew in frequently. Time to have AILEN run a diagnostic on his implant.
“How you feeling?” He dismissed his problems for later, looking away from the array of computer screens. His eyes darted to the bandage covering the side of Roake’s neck. “The doc says you’ll be fine. The collision with the door rattled your brain. The resulting concussion plus the loss of blood led to your body shutting down. But, the good news. No lasting damage. Doc’s cleared you for duty.” He added.
Roake’s fingers instinctively sought out the bandage. “The implant. Was it… damaged?”
Jàl saw a flicker of fear ghost across her features. He mulled her question. She was astutely aware of the ramifications caused by a damaged implant. Days would be wasted if the faulty circuit needed to be replaced and additional time for her body to accept the foreign object. Time he projected was growing short.
If the implant was destroyed, Roake’s help on the mission ended and no replacement waited. Rubbing his chin, Jàl regarded the young lieutenant. He choose his words carefully. Telling her the truth seemed like the less appealing option.
Yes, he said to himself, the implant had been damaged and should have been replaced but Jàl wasn’t certain he could beat the game on his own and selflessly wanted Roake by his side. So, by his own volition, he removed the option of waiting for Roake to undergo the intricate surgery and work through the adjustment period required for her brain to adapt to the new device.
While Roake lay unconscious and after the doc left, Jàl took matters into his hands. A rash decision but one clearly needed, he rationalized. With the tremors shaking the city in the clouds with increased frequency and the Verge growing more aggressive in their attempts to destroy the burgeoning program, what choice did he have. The modifications he preformed to save Roake’s implant cloned her consciousness by melding it with the computers mainframe. The changes were almost on par with the upgrades to his own circuits .
A few doubts weighed heavy. Would she suffer from the same headaches he now believed were the result of his modified implant, and what if she didn’t want to pursue the dangers of the 9-dimensional world waiting on the other side of his virtual doorway. A choice he made for her. How would she react?
“No. No damage to the implant. Everything is good,” he lied. The time for the truth could wait. Once inside the game, the changes to her programming would become obvious and he promised to come clean. Until then.
“We go back in tomorrow.” He swung back to the monitors. “You know where the good stuff is,” he said, referring to the black market soda he squirrelled away in his loft, “Relax, clear your head and rest up. I’ve got to recode the programming and find a way to reverse the effects of the Verge. They have evolved past the safe limits in the games parameters. Our last skirmish proved how dangerous they have become.”
Jàl stood transfixed. The air shimmered and darted with a brilliant display of shooting lights. A new building materialized from the dissipating digital material of the old rendering. High pitched shrills spilled over the street and overwhelmed his senses and warned of the monsters presence. His vision blinded by the bricks and mortar of the building’s façade. The composition of this building different than the others. The brick a size bigger and a brighter hue, the mortar imprinted with symbols.
Dust rode a faint breeze caused by the shifting of changing molecules. A waft of scorched air assaulted his nose. His breath balled at the back of his throat making breathing difficult.
The slow lumber of the drab coloured monsters with their bulging eyes and protruding snouts crept into the edge of his peripheral vision. The creatures slow movements growing larger with each passing second.
A passage appeared within the brick wall. A doorway to be free of the Verge. Jàl willed his feet to move. His brain screamed demands but his muscles froze and refused to obey his panicked commands. The volume of the shrill screeches increased. The outstretched limbs of the monsters clawing at thin air trying to thwart his escape.
To add to the nightmare, a new tide of Verge appeared on the other side of the opening. Their cries loud and piercing but different. The combined voices of these Verge, a solid whipping sound.
Jàl viewed the arrival of the monsters blocking his route with a suddenly calmer demeanour. His line of sight shifted. Now he looked over the Verge’s backs and could see a replica of himself framed in the doorway.
Roake swung her feet off the bed. Pulling a robe around her pyjamas, she stepped lightly down the metal stairs and into the open confines of the lab. Jàl sat hunched over the array of computer monitors, his hands flashing in the air, traversing the spread of holographic keyboards.
“Have you slept?” She asked padding across the tiled floor for the small kitchen set to the side of the large open room. She paused at the old fashioned coffee stand, Jàl’s greatest possession that stood front and foremost, dividing the lab from the cooking area.
The luxury of untold wealth, she mused, sifting through the canisters of assorted coffees. The clear containers displaying the rare, organic grown, small, dark brown beans. A taste that she found peculiar and yet addictive compared to the simulated slug that dripped from the standard processing stations substituting for the hot, bitter drink.
Roake played a tune with her fingers on the counter while the antique pot gurgled and hissed. The smell of fresh coffee lifted her spirits. “Would you like a cup,” she asked over her shoulder. Patiently tapping her foot, she waited for an answer. Cocking her head, she turned and stared at Jàl’s back. Lost in space once again, she mused.
When the second cup filled with the steaming hot drink, she collected the cups in her hand and walked to the work table aligned with the lighted monitors.
“What’s up? You sleeping with your eyes open?” she chided.
Jàl sat behind motionless behind the desk. Banks of computer monitors filled his vision. He held his breath, eyes glued to the monitors. The manifestation of himself frozen in the doorway, trapped on both sides by advancing monsters.
His fingers flew over the holographic keyboard. Line after line of code swam across the screens but all refused to allow his avatar to flee the approaching threats. Sweat beaded his forehead. The monsters clumped closer, their breathing sucking the air from the room. Each command typed by his fingers failed to penetrate the games programming.
A hand roughly shook his shoulder. Jàl twitched, startled by the interruption.
“Earth to Jàl,” Roake’s fingers dug roughly into the soft flesh covering his collar bone, freeing him from the dream.
Blinking away the nightmare, he re-focused on the screens. Lines of green code nestled against the black backgrounds. The dream was so real, Jàl thought, then on a hunch typed a new command. Nothing changed. Maybe it wasn’t a dream.
Jàl shifted his head and with eyes red from lack of sleep, he glanced up at her face, his hand combing back through his disheveled hair.
“You look like shit. What’s…happening?” Roake studied his face, concern crept into her voice.
Jàl shook his head and pushed back in his chair. “I’m locked out of the game. The algorithms have changed and my coding is being overridden.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” she replied.
“It’s…I…” Jàl stumbled to collect his thoughts. He glanced over at the monitors then reached for the offered coffee. “Some form of malware is blocking my access.”
“How is that possible? You designed the system. No one has the technology to corrupt your work.”
Not out here…”
It took a few seconds for Roake to absorb the meaning of his words. She tilted her head and studied his face. “Not out here. So where? You can’t mean inside. It’s a bloody game that you programmed. How on earth can this be possible?”
“I don’t know. That’s what’s troubling. There is no reason for this to happen,” he pointed to the white lines of digits scrolling across the green screens. “But yet.”
“So what does this mean? Are we going into the Annex today?” Roake used the code name for the Mixed-Reality world waiting beyond the gateway.
“Later.” Jàl responded. “Plans have changed. Suddenly, I wish there were more of us to go inside." He laughed off his nervousness. "You get what I mean. A calvary of the General's finest to ride to our rescue incase we run afoul of the Verge.”
“I know. But there are no reinforcements.” Roake stated. Her hand unconsciously lifted to the bandage attached to her neck. “Without the neural implants, you and I are the only ones able to enter the Annex through the gateway.”
Roake’s eyes narrowed. “That leaves lucky us to go and save the world."
Jàl was slow to meet her gaze. An impish smile climbed onto his troubled face. “Yes.” His head nodding up and down. “I originally designed this as a two player game. Who’s better than the two of us.”
Roake chewed her lower lip. “Okay. How do we deal with the Verge. We’ve never taken the fight to them. Until now, our plan was to avoid them as we navigate the levels of the game. We’d need an arsenal to hold them off.”
“I know,” Jàl agreed.His mind quickly switching from one problem to the next. “We can’t carry extra weapons in with us. The gateway won’t allow metal to pass between realities so the weapon caches installed with the original programming will have to suffice.
The stash by the entrance should have been reset once the game rebooted. Each section after will have its own supply,” he paused. A crooked smile backed by unease crossed his face, “but we’ll have to be extra careful. We’ve never faced this type scenario so we’ll need to scour the levels throughly as we cross them.
This may be the only chance left.”
“How long do you plan on being inside?”
“How long, I don’t know. Depends on the circumstances. If we are successful in crossing the different levels and we can retrieve the globe, our time inside will be limited.
Roake’s trained tactical mind shed the doubts she’d been feeling. “Do you know what the virus looks like?”
“No idea, actually. The virus can assume any shape and with the algorithms learning and adjusting, a meticulous sweep of each sector will be required. When we clear a level, access to the next block will need to be manually entered to allow us to continue. The first two blocks or levels, we’ve already been through…the next ones.” He shrugged and adverted his eyes to the computers. “We’ll see.”
Roake raised her shoulders, her brows knitted, her expression one of confusion. “Why, then, are we going? Given time, why can’t you fix the problems from there?” Her arm gestured to the bank of keyboards and screens.
“No.” His head swung side to side. “Whatever is causing the malfunction is growing inside the games parameters and hidden from my reach. I need to physically touch the globe before I can recalibrate the coding plus I need to recover the information archived on the globe’s hard drive. I believe the answer to finding a portal into the Groundliers world exists within the programs collective memory.”
Jàl turned back to Roake. He watched the colour drain from her face. Without her airing her concerns he imagined the dangers she was picturing. He let his eyes fall to the bandage on her neck. Proof that the two were not free from the perils of the Verge and the dangers of the 9th dimensional world.
Roake squeezed past Jàl. Her fingers flew over the keyboards. The lines of programming disappeared from the screens replaced by renderings and schematics of the games multi levels. After a few minutes a cursor blinked red. The globes last recorded position.
“Not good,” she mumbled under her breath. Her finger jabbing at the pulsing beacon. She lowered her gaze to the bottom of the screen. “Level 7.”
“That’s the last available coordinates before the game shut me out. The Globe’s purpose is to sift through the fragments of archived information inputed into the game and build realistic renderings while testing for possible portals to the Groundliers planet. Maybe that’s why it stopped.”
“What makes you think that we can best the Verge and contact the Globe.” Roake questioned.
Jàl studied the soldier while she arrived at the same conclusion he had earlier when he mapped the coordinates for the globes. His answer: the same both times. The existence of the Sky Dwellers city depended on their sacrifice.
“Because we have no choice,” Jàl stated. The nervous smile crippled by the effects of his waning confidence.
“Can the game reset while we’re inside? What will happen to us?”
“I don’t believe that will be possible. Probably find ourselves spit from the program and we’d have to try again but one crisis at a time. No use psyching yourself out before we give it a go.” Jàl cautioned. He pushed Roake's words from his thoughts. He’d wondered that himself but in honesty had no idea what would happen. Finding the globe was all that mattered for now. Naturally some risks had to be accepted.
He crossed the room and refilled his coffee. Stirring the sweetener into the cup, he leaned against a counter and watched while Roake busied herself memorizing the schematics of the games layers.
“I’ve had Doc working on some new equipment. Futuristic shit. None of it has been field tested.” He spoke to Roake’s back, changing the tone of the conversation. He waited until she looked over. “Would you like to see it?”
“Can we transport it across the portal?”
Jàl’s mood lightened. There was the Roake he had come to know. The worry in her voice chased away by her piqued interest.
“Bio-engineering.” He boasted. “Armour that literally fits like skin. The plating should absorb the effects of the Verge weapons. At least for a time. Come on.” He said pushing away from the counter.
Jàl carried his coffee and walked to the far end of the open loft. A metal staircase sank in the corner of the room leading down a floor beneath the massive loft. The best hope for the Sky Dwellers world lay in a distorted version of a video game. Like the rest of the mission, survival hinged on the optimism of an untested future.
Roake crouched close to the base of the brick wall and studied the deserted lane. The awkward caress of cloth rubbed against her shoulder as Jàl entered the game, stepping into the Mixed-Reality dimension close on her heals. His breathing harsh as he knelt by her side. A static charge caused the air to shimmered behind them. The digital closing of the doorway accompanied by a sucking vacuum sound, the noise created when the gateway morphed back into the brick façade.
Focused eyes peered between narrowed eyelids, shifting in grids, scanning the exposed walls of the quiet alley. She soothed the quicken pace of her heart adjusting to the heightened adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her fingers gently touched the bandage on her neck. A reminder of what can be.
Fighting to steady her nerves, she sucked in the heavy, stale air. Her lungs expanding, the slow rise of her chest stretching the pliable synthetic fibres of her drab, olive jump suit. Lungs filled to capacity, she began the practiced release of tension. The faint warm breeze ruffled the hairs on her arm as she slowly expelled the long, whispered breath. Her nerves settled. The apprehension of returning through the gateway and reengaging with the Verge, clawed at the back of her scalp, the memories faded but not forgotten.
Assuring that no danger waited their return to the game, her eyes retraced their circuitous route and stopped on the shadowed opening at the back of a building near the alleys mouth. The comforting square edges and smooth shapes of stacked boxes and assorted metal crates swam into focus. The merchandise appeared randomly stacked on the lip of a wooden shipping dock. The familiar pattern of the waiting packages eased her nerves further.
Roake flashed a hand signal and raised on her haunches. Keeping low to the ground, she left the relative security of the entrance and wormed across the barren, dusty alley for the boxes in the shadowed opening. Alert and focused, she took small comfort in the scrapes of Jàl’s footsteps as he crunched close behind. The noise of his movements mixed with the strange sounds emanating from the street on the front side of the buildings. The beginning of level one.
Pulling up tight into the dock’s shadows, Roake straightened along side the random crates. Her hands pushed the smaller boxes aside searching for the welcoming feel of the metal handles of a larger trunk. She pulled the heavy box closer, her fingers rushing to the clasps clamping the lid tight. The snap of the locks sounded frighteningly loud in her ears.
Relief swept across her face as she raised the lid. Particle rifles lay nestled in straw packing. The weapons lying in same configuration as every other time she’d opened the crate upon entering the game. Removing a rifle, she studied the contents in the bottom of the box. Smoke grenades snuggled in nests dug in the straw rested next to canvas cartridge belts and extra ammo clips for the rifles.
Roake passed one rifle behind her back then removed the second. She laid it aside before digging back into the box for the belts. Sliding one to Jàl, she strapped a belt around her waist. Her fingers lifted the grenades from the straw. Fitting the small explosives in the loops on the canvas, her hands dove back into the box.
She raised the slim plastic magazines, each carrying volatile charges of particle energy and stashed those in the pouch hanging on the side of the belt. Snapping the pouch closed, she turned and eyed Jàl.
The experience was new to him. On the previous trips to the Horizon she had been the one to carry the weapons. He, in his words, “was only along to explore and learn. She was the military expert.” This trip though, the situation required a concentrated armed presence. To exit the game without retrieving the Globe, downloading the stored information and then resolving the internal malfunction was not an option.
Two players meant two warriors ready to battle. Today, the novelty of scouring the Horizon for sport ended. Today, the game in 9-Dimension becomes a live version battlefield.
A chill ran the length of Roake’s spine as she considered the concept. Twitching against the curing bio-armour, she prayed that Jàl’s formula for the thin, transparent protective coating lived up to his expectations.
The memory of standing naked in the lab’s heated booth while jets of the sweet odoured, latex mist sprayed from the machine made her skin crawl.
The ring of nozzles rotated, spiralling from the floor to her chin and then reversed the pattern. Repeated applications, each with a short drying period in between, adhered to her skin, thickening with each pass. The final product only millimetres thick and translucent. The rubbery substance chafed and itched as it dried. The final cured product able to withstand short bursts of the Verge’s particle weapons before the molecules began breaking down. Or so Jàl calculated.
She tugged at her short red hair subconsciously. A red blush climbed her neck as she remember the shock of the cool spray on her bare skin, rising upward from her feet and then the involuntary sag of her body unused to the application of the slick substance. Her head and hair bowing below the cut off line for the spray nozzles. The first pass of the jets wet against her chin and clinging to the ends of the hair. She tugged at the few matted strands she was unable to free of the mixture.
Her vision traveled over the crates, the interior of the warehouse and the brick structure then 360n degrees back down to the wooden dock where the weapons crate rested. The games composite make-up hardened under her gaze. The building materials sharper, more defined beneath the grey luminescence of the games light.
Curious, she let her fingers slide along the platform of the loading dock. Her brain told her that the properties of the games components were merely faux renderings mimicking reality. But yet under her finger tips the surface felt rough and real.
She rubbed the edge of the weapons box. The metal cool to her touch. What was happening. Was her mind tricked or was the game morphing into reality.
A tap on her shoulder brought her focus back to the present.
“Are you alright?” Jàl queried.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” she glanced at Jàl and then back at the metal box on the wooden dock. “Am I going crazy or are these objects adopting the properties of our world?”
Jàl’s eyes followed Roake’s stare. “The algorithms are programmed to learn. The closer they arrive at understanding the groundliers world, the better the mock-ups. The detail is so fine that our minds have difficulty differentiating between the 3D renderings contained in this dimension and reality.” He shrugged.
“Or something along those lines. I could delve into long complex scientific jargon but actually I’m not certain how the transformation is taking place.
He stopped, scratching the back of his head and looked over the contents in the warehouse. “The program needs to closely replicate the groundlier’s level to find a suitable place to portal into their world.”
“What will that mean for us? And…” he paused. “I know what you’re thinking. Does this make the Verge deadlier? Well, I hope not,” Jàl stared into Roake’s face. “but none the less. We should try to avoid the beasts and their particle guns.”
The sounds of muted conversations and the slow rhythmic beat of footsteps grew in cadence the nearer Roake closed on Manchester street. Crowds of human form game pieces, or as Jàl so aptly referred to the computer generated avatars programmed into the game, extras, shuffled on the sidewalks and in and out of the businesses lining the long street. Watching the extras walk their designated routes, Roake found herself once again wondered if Jàl intentional added the game pieces to disguise the Verge. The monsters hidden among the human form pieces added a certain nerve clutching element of danger to the playing field. Was this on purpose? Was the clutter of extra bodies for the beasts to hide amongst useful in her training?
The fact that the two types of beings existed in the game, is that how Jàl pictured the Sky Dwellers ancestors as they lived their existences trapped forever on the planet’s poisoned surface? Roake stole glances at the heads of the passing crowd as if the answer waited in their faces.
The inhabitants of the game marched about with blank faces and unseeing eyes, the extra’s movements mechanical, zombiesque. Roake narrowed her gaze, focusing on the eyes of the oblivious pieces, alert for the tell-tale sign of yellowed tinged eyes betraying the disguised Verge. In the distance, the towering white clapboard exterior of the bank building stood signifying the end of the journey and the passage to level two.
A collection of the extras gathered at the corner of the sidewalk, the crowd growing in size. The traffic light signalled red. Roake’s head swivelled. She grabbed Jàl’s shoulder and stuffed him into the doorway of a department store. From there, she studied the parked cars, the shadows of other doorways leading from the businesses onto the sidewalk and back to the spattering of game pieces on the sidewalks and crossing from opposite sides of the street.
When first entering the game, passing the first level had been mostly obstruction free but she reminded herself that the game's parameters had changed. The Verge’s awareness of her and Jàl’s presence on each consecutive visit, increased, so she could take nothing for granted.
She calculated the timing of the traffic light to limit exposure while the two crossed the street. The doors of the bank loomed invitingly back at her, the double glass and wood entrance waiting down the block and across the intersection.
The light changed to green. The slow, mechanical movements of the extras waiting at the lights edged off the sidewalk. Roake motioned for Jàl to follow. Her foot settled on the concrete path, her back foot raised and lifted off the step, her upper body swung into action ready to leave the shelter of the doorway.
Flashes of numbers and pages of schematics overwhelmed her thoughts and highjacked her mind. Roake’s hand shot to the side of her head. The unfamiliar streams of information, unnerving. Lines of code passed behind her eyes blinding her sight and halting her movements. Roake shook her head violently in an attempt to halt the intrusion. Her eyes cleared. Free of the distraction, she glanced back at Jàl. He stood frozen, eyes open but unseeing as he stared blankly ahead.
“We have to move.” Roake shouted. Her words jolted Jàl from his trance. He blinked. She watched his eyes blink as he focused on her face.
“The Globe. It not on this level. I don't detect a signature.” He ignored Roake’s warning.
The shuffling extras walking past on the sidewalk stopped. The heads of the human zombies turned in the pair’s direction. Roake snorted a sharp intake of air. The breath caught in her chest stopped by a sickly feeling roiled in the pit of her stomach. The building of a warning niggled at the bottom of her spine.
“They know we’re here.” Her words of warning followed closely by a curse, the harsh words rasping in her throat. A spike of adrenaline brought forth learned instincts and fuelled her into action. Roake tugged at Jàl’s arm pulling him from the doorway and in the direction of the traffic light. The crowd on the sidewalk interfering with the route of escape. The extras impeding a fast dash for the green light. Featureless faces and uncomprehending eyes of the avatars gazed at the game’s main players. Roake felt Jàl’s breath on the back of her neck.
“There.” He pointed over her shoulder. Surfacing from the milling crowd, the tell-tale signs of yellow ringed eyes betrayed an alerted Verge. The monster’s wide eyes peered around from distorted faces. The camouflaged scourge of the 9th-dimensional game pushed past the empty husks of the program’s extras to gain ground on the players.
Roake swung the particle rifle from her back and fired at the nearing target. The heated particle of light smashed into the monster. The wounded Verge released an ear shattering squeal that roared above the din of the street. A halo of heated, shimmering air engulfed the monster as it’s body erupted in pieces.
The cry of the dying Verge signalled others. Soon a chorus of high pitched squeals rose from all around. The mournful, reverberating wailing building to an eery, surreal symphony. The random scattering of beasts hidden among the computer generated crowds walking the streets, revealed themselves. The human façades of the Verge melted, revealing pockets of the monsters in all directions.
Light glinted off the metallic antenna and the bald heads of the creatures. Large foreheads shone above bulging eyes nestled over round, protruding noses, the monster's enlarged heads perched on the grossly distorted bodies. Massive tumours disfigured the creature's backs while folds of yellowish brown skin hung from their legs and arms glimmering under the artificial lights of the game. Oversized legs propelled the beasts forward, the skin on their forearms rippling as they moved. Bulky hands with thick, knobby fingers gripped the beasts version of particle rifles.
An invisible beam of ionized particles heated the air inches above Roake’s head. The stream of energy from the particle blaster absorbed by the brick façade surrounding the building’s entrance. The disruptive shot of charged atoms rained chunks of shattered brick down onto the sidewalk. Roake shoved Jàl toward the doorway then calmly knelt on one knee. Timing her breaths, she lined her shots with the movements of the advancing Verge. Her nerves calm as hostile blasts of superheated particle rays searched for a target.
When the streams from her gun met with one of the enemies, she switched her angle and sighted a new target and squeezed the trigger. In her peripheral vision, the blinding pulses of Jàl’s weapon emoted streams of vapour into the air as he fired on the bug-headed monsters.
The added obstacles of game pieces milled about oblivious to the battle, crowding the sidewalks and street. The extras neither helping nor hindering either side of the battling parties. Each pulse of the particle guns subtracting from the shrill screams of the enemy. The Verge advanced into the return fire. The game's programmed nemesis lacked the required lines of coding enabling them to seek shelter or retreat while under attack.
When the last Verge fell, Roake climbed to her feet and surveyed the carnage covering the street. Scattered pieces of human and Verge parts littered the sidewalks and leaked onto the road.
Roake gazed down at Jàl, still crouched on the step.
“Why bugs? Why did you design the Verge to resemble the ancient insects? They’re creepy.” She scowled. A shiver borne of the repulsive analogy ran the length of her spine.
Jàl kept his eyes focused on the street. “I never thought of the Verge quite like that.” He admitted. “I suppose. When I wrote the programming,” he tilted his head in thought, “for some reason this image stuck in my mind. I don’t know why.
Remember. As far as we know, the groundliers still occupy the surface of the planet. Think of the evolutionary changes they'd need to adapt in order to survive the poisoned atmosphere living on the surface.” He explained. “Besides. What do you know about bugs? That’s a word long lost to our civilization.”
“You think you’re the only one who knows how to work a search engine?” Roake replied over his shoulder. “I was curious after our first encounter with the Verge. I wondered how you came to fashion the beasts the way you did. Believe me. Finding a comparison in the few remaining archives relating to the old world wasn't easy.”
Jàl turned back to study the monsters with a new perspective. The bulging eyes and sizeable protruding snout of the faces along with the antenna and hardened skulls. Maybe Roake was right. Perhaps ancient bugs were his idea of what a monster could resemble.
“Let's get off the street.” Roake tugged at his sleeve, her arm lifted and a finger pointed down the block to the final obstacle between them and advancing past the first level. The old bank building sat across the lights of the intersection. The street remained busy with the hustle of the game extras. The myriad of human forms moving together in a sequenced choreography.
Jàl followed close behind Roake. The light hung above the intersection showed red, forcing the two to hold on the corner. A building crowd of bodies formed around them on the sidewalk. The game's progression depending on a change of colour to allow the programmed sequence to advance and complete the current loop before resetting.
Jàl glanced away from the crowd. His eyes busy scanning the two-lane street. Empty. He felt Roake tug on his arm.
“We shouldn’t wait." He heard her say as she turned and prepared to leave the curb and step onto the street. A panicked blare of a horn and the smell of hot rubber hard from braked tires startled her. The empty road transformed with racing cars filling the lanes. The line of vehicles rolling along with the green light. The car with the blaring horn barely missed striking Roake. Jàl’s panicked grip crushed her arm when he yanked her back onto the curb to safety.
“Where in the …” she muttered, glaring over at the cars buzzing by on the suddenly busy street.
Jàl breathed harshly, reeling from the close call of his friend. Trapped on the sidewalk, Roake stood high on her toes and glanced over the heads of the zombie human forms gathered on the corner. Shifting her eyes over the connecting streets, she breathed a sigh of relief in discovering the lack of further threats.
Pushing aside the crowd of oblivious game pieces, Roake pulled Jàl along. The pair rushed for the beckoning doors of the bank. The interior of the building the final obstacle of level one and the last time they'd spotted the globe. Roake studied the building’s doors before inching them open. Her blaster following her line of sight as she scanned the interior before stepping from the sidewalk.
“Clear.” She called. The inside, silent and deserted, unlike the previous time the two breached the doors and scant seconds before the Verge sprung their trap. Memories filled Roake's thoughts from the team's hasty retreat the last time they entered the building. She felt Jàl pass by, stirring her back to the present. She busied herself by scanning the few pieces of furniture scattered across the floor. The sparse furnishing of the single-story building due to a lack of actual information Jàl explained when she’d commented on the subject during the first visits.
Floor coverings of an unknown material led from the entrance to a line of rendered wood counters lining the far wall. The space across the room, empty, except for a single table that stood in the middle of the floor. The very table where the globe began its journey during the creation of the game. The table now sat deserted. The simple days of the game's existence had long passed. The cache of information the pair searched for now resided in one of the unexplored upper levels.
Roake swung her attention back to the street entrance while Jàl jogged to the far end of the building. From behind her back, she heard him walk to the back wall. The scuffed noise caused from the friction of his gloved hands rubbing across the wall’s rough materials created the only audible sounds in the room.
“Here. This section,” Jàl called. Roake backed away from the entrance. Her eyes locked on the front doors while she crossed the room. Sensing Jàl waiting close behind, she peeled her eyes from the entrance and followed his pointing finger.
“This brick. Notice the difference in texture and colour?” Jàl rubbed his hand over the brick to emphasize his words. The material, when one looked closer, stood apart from the remainder of the computer-generated wall. The surface in the area rough and better defined.
Roake watched Jàl run his finger, tracing the compound squeezed between the bricks. Leaning closer, he mumbled.
“Notice, there’s this very fine writing etched into the mortar.” He explained. Roake rolled her eyes. The same speech he used every time they arrived at this point. Her eyes flitted between the front door and Jàl as he focused his mind. For a second time, she felt a strange tingling touch the fringe of her brain.
Jàl’s concentrated his focused on the section of bricks ringed by the writing. When he connected with the programs mainframe, Roake found her mind venturing along. Her vision blurred then cleared along with his. Before she was able the wonder about the experience or mouth a question regarding what she had just felt, one of the bricks flickered before a brief flash of light exposed a metal panel.
No sooner did Jàl free his mind from the main Fram when loud shouts of angry excitement seeped into the building and echoed off the walls. Shrill, unnerving squeals, a fore warning of a new wave of hunting Verge descended on the building. The troubling emotions of being highjacked by Jàl’s thoughts vanished from
Roake's mind at the racket created by the monsters. The military part of her brain picking up on a troubling coincidence. Was it possible that the Verge were also connected to the games workings and whenever Jàl connected with the mainframe, he unknowingly sent an alert to their position? A serious question that required immediate attention once the two were safely away.
She pushed the thoughts aside in time to watch Jàl raise his palm and lay his hand flat against the metallic surface. The air around the wall shimmered with vapours. The rigid makeup of the brick transformed. The solid composition of the brick, softened into a blur as the molecules melted into a milky wall of liquid and then dissipated, revealing the opening to level two.
“Ready,” Jàl called over his shoulder before lifting his foot and disappearing into the doorway.
Level two phased into life. Jàl stepped to the side allowing Roake access through the portal. The bleats and cries of the Verge died when the opening transformed back to solid form. Jàl remained close to the wall. His head on a swivel, he looked over the surroundings. The composition of the new level not much unlike the construct at the beginning of level one, but this time the scene opened with at least one noticeable change.
Instead of the portal hiding at the joint of a ninety degree corner, the walls of the buildings lining the alley created tunnels that ran away from the portal in three directions. The pair stood at the head of a T-intersection. Routes leading away from the spot in three identical walkways.
Jàl twisted his head to the right. His eyes picking at abstract spots along the dusty path. His eyes probed the rendered roadway and faux brick façades. To that direction lay one of the original routes leading away from the corner. The perpendicular path running straight away the portal the second means of escape, thus making the alley to the left somewhat of a conundrum. What did the added alley bring to the playing field?
The rustling movements of Roake from behind reminded Jàl of her presence. Flipping his head 180 degrees, his eyes met hers. Her brows dipped as she studied his face in return.
“I was wondering the same thing. Why would the algorithms add an additional route out of here?” He misinterpreted the discerning look shaping her face.
Roake shuffled. Her eyes locked on his face. “Yeah.” Her voice trailed off. “The thought did cross my mind.” She glanced up at the left hand alley then returned to study his face. “But, that’s not what’s troubling me the most. How is it possible that I can see your connection to the mainframe in my mind?”
The fingers in her left hand found the back of her neck and the fresh scar healed over the implant. “How much damage occurred?” she said in reference to the incident with the Verge and the car and the trauma to the back of her head. “Is that the reason we re-entered the frame work at the very beginning and not started here or level three?”
Jàl thought about his response and the order to answer. “We had no choice but to start fresh at the beginning. The games commands are being over written, remember, thus locking me out. The only access back into the system was level 1.
I imagine the entry was still accessible because we’ve defeated the level so many times. But this level. You were injured here so we technically never advanced through and then our dash through level three to escape back to reality. Well. Let’s just say that our excursion failed to complete the mission. The exit the Avatar Ree-al revealed to us was in fact the original exit from one.
The levels are changing. The addition of the third branch of the alley supports my theory. Even with out surfing the network, I can sense the algorithms busy in the back ground. While we sit here, the games parameters are adjusting to deal with our invasion.” He scrunched his brows and twisted his mouth in thought.
“Okay. That’s all fine, but you never answered my question, though. Did you?”
Jàl looked Roake. The time the two spent together bred familiarity. The cold, darkened scrutiny in her dark eyes reminded him of who she really was. A highly trained soldier of the general’s death-squads.
“Your implant did sustain some damage when you whacked your head,” he paused to pick his words. “When doc decided he needed to remove your implant to run a diagnostic, I switched it out for an upgraded model. You carry the same version I use.” His hand swung up and touched his neck.
“So. That means?”
“Your awareness while inside this realm of digitally rendered reality is expanded. The whole system, every bit and bite, every zero and one that comprises the games coding, is open to you. Well, I think so anyways. We never really had time to test the upgrade. Did we?”
“You never thought to ask my permission,” Roake’s brown eyes darkened to black. A blush of anger crept up her collar and climbed the exposed skin on her neck.
“Again. Short of time.” Jàl explained. His mind failed see the problem or the fact that she was angry. Why? He did her a colossal favour. The scope of her mind increased exponentially. Or it should have. Suddenly, he regretted not having time to test the implant and discovering her potential.
“You and I will be having a serious discussion once this mission is finished.” She promised. “I do not enjoy the fact that our thoughts are tied together. When you merge with the mainframe, my thoughts are surrendered and I am left blind. This may prove dangerous once we advance further and the Verge and the game grow wiser.”
“Fair enough.” Jàl acquiesced. “But for now we can’t change things.” He shifted and began scouting the alleys. “Which way do you suggest?” He asked.
Roake lifted her gaze above Jàl’s head. Her eyes probed the empty entrances leading into the three separate routes of travel. She failed to locate the munition chests of hidden armaments. Roake worked the cartridge free of her rifle before answering. The only cartridge left. The ones in her belt burnt out fighting the Verge on the first level. The cartridge glowed orange. A few blasts from empty.
“Check your rounds?” She instructed. Her gaze falling on Jàl’s belt. The nose of one extra cartridge remained clipped in its leather pouch. Jàl lacked Roake’s grace with weapons. His fingers slippery while fumbling to eject the cartridge. A green glow indicated a full charge.
Roake calculated the remaining charges between the two. The need for a weapons cache decided the direction for her. The last time out, the right arm of the alley led to a hidden room containing the ornaments for the 2nd level. From there, the tunnel of exterior walls curved and led to opening with the decrepit street full of deserted cars.
The pair walked the familiar route. The artificial light of the game remained constant until it didn’t. The shadows in the allies grew longer with the passing of time. The first run down the alley and to the promise of the hidden guns dangled incentive but the carrot never surrendered. The alley replenished with each passing step. The scenery never changing. A feeling of confusion walked beside the two as they returned to the starting point.
The disgruntled pair left the familiar path and stepped into the alley shooting straight out from the portal. Time wasted on the first leg of their journey brought a discomforting nagging at the base of their spines. The two had never walked the fake streets of the Mixed-Reality program when the lights dropped.
The first two legs out of the alley and away from the intersection resulted in the disappointment of retreat sending the pair back to the starting point. Jàl bent over his knees and filled his lungs. He lowered his head letting the worry of the past hours drain so he could re-focus. Abruptly, he stood. His mind fresh, he opened his thoughts to welcome the connection with the mainframe.
A flicker of neurones sparked in his brain at the initial log in. A jolting blow to his shoulder brought his mind rushing back to reality. His body twisted and collided with a wall.
“What the …” he stuttered, the contact with the computer’s brain fading. From the corner of his eye he watched Roake. Frustrated, she slammed her fist into the faux materials lining the building walls.
“What were you planning on doing,” she scowled.
“Searching for an overlay of the area and a way out of here. We need to reload and we are losing time,” he pointed skyward at the dimming light.
“Too risky,” Roake voiced her theory of the how she figured the Verge only became alerted to their position once Jàl connected with the games programming. “It’s the only reason I can think of that bring Verge to us. Right now we don’t have the fire power to stand any form of attack. I for one don’t feel like experimenting with defeat at the monster’s hands.”
Jàl stood frozen, his attention locked on Roake. His mind flooded with facts that backed her statement. How could he have missed something so obvious?
“You’re right. What should we do?” He asked. Without the guidance of the programs vast network the scope of completing each level required a different measure of understanding.
The briefest attempt to access the systems drives brought a distance howl drifting over the alley. The far off cries of hunting Verge carried in the stale air encompassing the programs reality.
“Pass me your extra cartridge,”Roake motioned to plastic casing attached to Jàl’s belt. Stuffing the cartridge into a pocket, she swallowed a deep breath then pushed off from from the intersection and began scanning the remaining route out. Each step taken with caution. Her eyes prying into the growing shadows accumulating in the fading light. The loud breathing from behind of Jàl as he followed closely on her heels, mingled with the distant cries of the Verge.
Like the previous two attempts to emerge from the alleys and gain entrance to the front streets, the walls and road looped on the same repeating sequence. Dark hovered close overhead when Roake turned her back to the closest wall and leaned back with frustration.
“This shit is hopeless.” She protested. “Another never ending circle. Maybe we stepped through the wrong opening back at the bank.”
“Yeah. I don’t know.” Jàl conceded. He extended his arm and joined Roake, bracing his palm against the building. Through the thin layer of his glove, an unfamiliar granular composition pricked through his glove. The hardened material scratching his skin. Bending his arm, he craned his neck, bringing his head closer.
“What?” He heard Roake ask.
Jàl rubbed his hand over the rough surface. His hands travelled away and then returned to the rougher section of wall. “This area,” he patted the brick with his hand, “same composition as the bricks in the bank. They have texture unlike the indistinguishable qualities of the program rendered materials. The feel is coarse. I can’t explain.” Jàl’s fingers searched his belt before he turned to Roake.
“A light. What do we have that can light this space?”
Roake lifted her rifle and ejected the cartridge of shots. “I can ignite one of these,” she dug a single shot from the plastic holder. “It will only last a few seconds and it might signal any Verge lurking close by.” The constant muted cries of the monsters accompanied the pair as they walked the never ending alley.
“We need to chance it. Set the blast off when I say I’m ready.” Jàl placed his nose millimetres from the wall.
“Okay, light it.” he called from over his shoulder. Roake set the small casing on the ground and tapped it with the butt of her rifle. A bright flash bloomed in the alley. The light flared, fizzled and then faded back to dark.
In the flicker of light, Jàl caught an unexpected result from the corner of his eye. “Come over here and try that one more time,” He requested shuffling a few yards further down the length of the alley. His voice broke the silence when the second shell burnt out.
Jàl watched the seemingly solid wall reveal the skeletal outline of a large opening with the addition of light. He edged closer in the darkness and rubbed his hands over the brick wall. “The opening disappears with the darkness. What we need is a more permanent light source to freeze the opening and allow us to pass.” his hand patting the wall he watched disintegrate under the flare of the particle flash.
“How long long do you think it remained opened?” Roake asked.
“A millisecond. Maybe two.”
“If you leaned tight to the wall, would you pass through in that short of span?”
“I’m not certain. And if not, I don’t know what would happen if one was caught in the transformation?”
“Why didn’t we spot the opening as we walked? Darkness hadn’t completely fallen when we approached this section?”
“Good question.” Jàl raised his head and looked skyward. He measured the height of the wall and the angle the light flooded the alley. His mind churned with calculations. “The light came from over there.” He pointed to the top of the building. “This side was consumed in shadow when we arrived. So, no light to trigger the opening.”
“What made you think of using light to reveal the archway?”
“I didn’t.” He confessed. “I thought that maybe with the feel of the brick, words would be inscribed into the mortar. I hoped that it was the same as the bank. A hidden pad used to open a passage.”
“If I burn many more blasts, we’ll be in trouble if the Verge find us. And they don’t offer a long enough light.”
Jàl’s fingers played a muted rhythm on the wall while he worried over the problem. Pushing off the wall, he turned and studied Roake in the near absence of light.
“I need to connect with the mainframe. I can reconfigure a light source to shine on the wall.”
“The second you do that we’ll be overwhelmed with those nasty beasts. Even with their poor aim we’ll be trapped and easy targets.”
“I know. What other choice. Remain stranded? We can’t complete the course from here.”
Roake stroked her jaw. “This is what we’ll do.” Her tactical training twisted the limited options the two faced into a simple, desperate plan. Facing down the alley, away from Jàl, Roake jammed the last, full clip of ionized particle blasts into the rifle and calmly knelt on one knee.
A quick glance back at Jàl assured her that he too stood ready. His hands held waist high, his finger caressing the trigger.
“Now or never,” she called. Fringes of soft white light edged into her conciousness. Jàl stood frozen. His eyes lost focus. His mind soared, travelling on invisible wave lengths connecting to the digital pulses of the game’s operating system.
Blood curdling shrieks hammered Roake’s thoughts free of Jàl’s mind. The spritzing of colourful flashes eased. Focusing her sight on the dark alley, the growing shrieks and winning of the Verge erupted into the night. A light flared from behind.
The bumbling forms of angry monsters swarmed her vision. Roake sucked a long breath deep into her gut. Tracking the beasts movements, she pressed the rifle’s trigger. A well placed beam of charged energy sliced through the leg of the lead Verge. The action toppling the beast to the ground. Others piled into the fallen leader.
The next creature to step past the tangled pile, Roake adjusted her aim and caught the monster centre mass. The searing blast exploding on contact sending spray of red matter back over the others.
“Clear in front.” Jàl’s voice sounded. Standing quickly, Roake launched one last glance at the monsters then turned and stepped the few short yards toward the mouth of the alley. Jàl fired back across her at the rumbling monsters.
“Hurry,” he urged. “I don’t know how long the opening will remain.”
Roake dove the last few feet. Lowering her shoulder, she caught Jàl flush in the back, driving him forward. The two tumbled past the entrance in the brick. The contact with Jàl shattered his concentration. No sooner did the pair smack into the road on the other side, the alley left behind plunged back into darkness. The opening sealed quickly by the faux brick of the digital rendering.
The solid barrier cut off the shrieks and whines of the Verge from behind but the monsters calls began lifting into the air from the near distance. Roake rolled to her knees. With eyes wide, she stared into the endless darkness, watching, waiting. The change of surroundings hidden completely from view. Not a single stray strand of light available to hint at the game’s approaching dangers.
With nerves on fire, she struggled to remain still. All around she could sense the night move. The uneasy breathing of her partner audible. Anxiety tickled the edge of her being then slowly began the climb up from the base of her spine. The mournful wails of the Verge, a ominous wall of sound that threatened to overtake the pair as they knelt in the night. The helpless feeling accompanied by short spikes of adrenaline and then cooled by equal doses of dread formed the realization that her and Jàl were not alone.
Braced on one knee, Roake swept the barrel of her rifle across the dark void. As the gun came back to centre, she squeezed the trigger. The micro-second flash of the particle beam exploded into the dark. Her breath caught in her throat with the picture revealed by the short blast of light.
A wall of Verge lined the street not 20 feet from where she and Jàl burst through the wall. The monsters silent and waiting. At the trigger of her shot, she witnessed large blasters raise toward her position. Borne of instinct and multiplied by panic, she rose sideways and dove for Jàl. Her movements swam under the heated air of searing beams. The immediate area lit up like day from the impulses of the monster’s fire.
Words tore from her throat as she yelled a warning at Jàl before bowling him over. Her sight followed his movements. She gasped in horror as his head collided heavily with the brick wall. The loud thud of skull bone mashing against an unforgiving obstacle echoed over the symphony of excitement voiced by the Verge. A cry of shock sounded from his lips. Roake’s vision fell from Jàl’s crumpling form as a blinding pain bit into her brain. Her arm bent awkwardly under the weight of her body as she bounced off the ground.
Dazed, she fought through the pain of her injury, twisting her head to locate Jàl in the trailing light of enemy fire. She watched him sag against the brick wall. His head lulled then sank. His eyes losing focus before they closed. Darkness and silence erased her thoughts.
Jàl pried open his eyes. Light seeped under his fluttering lids. A throbbing pain on the side of his skull accompanied blurred vision. Ignoring muscles cramped from hours of being frozen in an uncomfortable position, he willed his joints to move, shaking free and sat upright. Numb fingers rubbed sleep away from his eyes before he passed his fingers across the side of his head. Pressing lightly, he probed at the centre of the pain radiating on the side of his head. His fingers discovering a tangle of hair matted by dried blood.
Still dazed, he lifted his head. Curiosity forced his vision to probe the strange surroundings. A world of white absorbed his probing before the void canvas melted under his gaze. As his awareness returned, he sat captivated by the hazy mirages materializing out of the re-booted digital world while it crept back into focus. The games programming refreshing and growing with detail.
Business signs flashed to being over sunken doorways. The glass of the windows tossed forward reflections of the street’s surroundings, and the concrete sidewalks bordering the buildings molded into shape. Lamp posts and garbage bins phased into existence, cars shimmered into the picture along with the curbs and medians separating the sidewalk from the road surface.
Watching the streetscape develop in conjunction of his building cognizance, confusion surrendered to a slide of images from his last waking memories. The dark alley and the calling of light. A well hidden opening that breached into existence as the darkness dissolved. How the pair broke through the opening at the alley mouth and finally the flashes in the darkness that searched for them on the other side. On this side?
The reel of memory from the previous night continued. The flash of Roake’s blaster flaring into the night. Verge lined the street, waiting. The monsters slow to return fire. The impact of Roake’s body as it crushed the air from his body at contact and the flitting of pain when his skull and the wall made contact.
He swivelled his head, stopping when he located Roake. Slight movements of her head suggested she lay awake. Her body scrunched on the sidewalk feet from where he sat. From the back of her skull, he slid his eyes along the sidewalk stopping at her side. Even from this position, he noticed her arm and the awkward angle it lay trapped beneath her body.
With the lifting fog, his mind cleared. He searched farther out. The street lay open and bright before his gaze. No Verge. In fact little of anything exciting. A line of buildings now filled the opposing sidewalk. The rendered businesses similar to the level before, except.
He strained his eyes. The exterior walls of the opposing buildings flickered with alternating details. Digital renderings blended with real world texture. From his seat against the wall, Jàl couldn’t be certain but his eyes roamed sections of the walls where the games program appeared to have broken the barrier from digital to real world properties. Could it be possible the algorithms had pieced together enough strands of information of the groundliers world that they were able to begin replicating an actual duplicate?
Excitement pried the darker thoughts from the previous evening away from Jàl’s mind until a pain evoked groan from Roake brought him back to the present. He studied the fallen soldier as she rolled onto her back and then climbed to her knees.
“What…happened?” Her voice scratchy and uncertain while her head swivelled back and forth across the barren street.
Roake’s question turned over in his mind. Other thoughts dropped while he considered different possibilities. The more he pursued the answer, the deeper he delved into the the past and present, the faster the rush of activity powering his brain sped up the re-booting of the game’s 2nd level. Human forms began repopulating the sidewalks and streets. A few here and there at first followed by larger clusters.
Soon, people walked back and forth. The crowds closest, stepping around the section of sidewalk occupied by he and Roake. The game pieces followed their predetermined roles for the current level of play.
“You’re doing this?” A tinge of awe and fright wrapped Roake’s words as they scraped at the edge of his being. The scene playing in the recesses of his mind consisted of lines of code while outside his head, his eyes witnessed the reawakening of the 2nd level street scene as it bloomed into digital life. Impulses sparked the enhanced neurones in his brain recreating the minute details of the preprogrammed coding fleshing out the Mixed-Reality world saved in the games memory board.
“Jàl.” Roake’s voice accompanied a shove to the shoulder. Jàl dropped the connection with the games circuits and looked up into Roake’s ashen face. She held her injured arm tight to her body.
“We have to move. We’ll talk about this later,” she said, referencing the paired awaking of the games operating system and Jàl’s conciousness. “You linked with mainframe. The Verge will be sure to follow.”
Cries and shrieks whipped up the air in the distance underlining her hurried words.
“There.” She pointed. The outline of an alley showed between two lines of structures a half block down the street. The only discernible clue available to lead to the hidden stash of weaponry. Jàl shook free the cobwebs left from binding with the games electronic brain and staggered to his feet. One final gaze around before Roake’s hard grip pulled him along.
The two raced among the crowd of game pieces plugging the sidewalk and rounded the corner into the alley. Roake continued down the path. The high walls of the buildings throwing a vail of shadow to cover their movements.
Built into the side of a building. A similar niche to level one. A low concrete dock hidden in the darkest shadows supporting a host of wooden crates. Jàl leaned his back tight against a wall watching Roake run through her paces. The opening of the crate. The searching glove hand and the retrieval of fresh particle rifles.
Pushing off the wall, Jàl reached forward and grabbed the rifle extended from Roake’s hand. In the grip of his other hand, he accepted a bus of ammunition. With practiced familiarity, he jammed the spare cartridges into his belt. His actions completed without a single thought. His mind occupied with curiosity at the process that unfolded upon his waking.
The gist of his ruminations: how the electric pulse of the game’s system and his conciousness appeared locked in sync. At least from the small example of this mornings activities, that was the foundation he adopted to form his thesis.
“What happened once we exited from the alley?” He asked Roake.
“The Verge were waiting on us. Lines of them blocked the street when we crossed.”
“I seem to remember that. I must have passed out after you tackled me.” His fingers probed the welt on the side of his head. “What can you add? What happened with the Verge? How did you drive them off?”
“I don’t recall exactly.”
“Nothing? How did you stop the verge from finishing us off? We were short of ammunition?”
“I…I really don’t remember. I turned back to fight the Verge after pushing you from the line of fire. From the edge of my sight I noticed you collided with the wall and then…,” Roake paused turning away from the cache of weapons to stare into Jàl’s face. “I awoke, lying face down on the sidewalk, my arm twisted underneath my body. I think the pain woke me.” She sat back on the low concrete dock. Her good hand kneading the muscles of her injured arm.
“I don’t know what happened, but when my eyes first opened, the thought that we died crossed my mind. I remember seeing…a…a clean canvas free of all detail.” Roake struggled to put words to her unusual awaking. “I fully expected some ethereal vision to materialize.
I know I’m rambling and this sounds very unprofessional, but I was scared. Thankfully, when the landscape slowly shifted into sight, that feeling disappeared. It’s hard to explain.”
Roake studied Jàl’s face. “Is it possible that this program and your mind are fused together that when you lost conciousness, the game was forced to shut down? And if that’s true…as you woke, the program rebooted?”
“Anythings possible.” Jàl agreed. “And if we run with that theory. The update to your implant would shut you down as well.”
“So we don’t die caught inside this dimension when the game pauses. I guess that’s a plus.” Roake returned sorting through the cache of weapons. “Allows us time to comb each level to discover the globe's whereabouts. But, we still have to track whatever is over-riding your commands and regain control of the program. Then we’ll be able to complete this part of the mission and return to our own reality.”
The sidewalk crossing the mouth of the alley teamed with activity. Crowds whisked by on an endless loop programmed into the game’s operating system. The stream of bodies shortened the sight line to less than couple feet in every direction and shielded the second block of the level off completely. Two levels, two blocks. The games algorithms written to include a additional block corresponding with the level number.
Roake stood tight to the corner. She mapped out a strategy to carry the pair from the relative safety of the alley to the far end of the next street and thus ending at the discarded stacks of deserted autos marking the doorway to level three. In her search, she studied the buildings opposite for clues to the globes’s location. Traversing the level meant little if they left the globe behind.
The concept of defeating the game culminated in leaving with a prize. The globe was designated that prize. The vessel tasked with deciphering and assimilating the terra-bytes of information required to build a duplicate the ancient world of the Groundliers. Information pertinent to plotting a gateway from the Mixed-Reality dimension to the birth place of human life and the promise of a cure for the virus threatening the Cloud City.
“Do you sense the globe? I mean, can you, without melding with the grid.” Roake quickly added. She remained focused on the surrounding buildings watching for signs of the prize or warnings of the enemy. Her eyes probed the sunken doorways leading off the sidewalks and into the individual stores.
“I got nothing.” Jàl confessed. “The closer the proximity, maybe, I’m not sure. We might have to rattle a few doorknobs or physically search each probable location.”
“Stick close,” Roake said. Her decision made. “We can use the crowd for cover and whatever you do, do not call upon the grid,” She threatened before slipping around the corner and blending into the foot traffic as it flowed away from the mouth of the alley. Roake halted at the first doorway, the width of a store away. A brief scan revealed the one dimensional rendering of the particular entrance.
Backing into the crowd, she moved a few steps further before pausing at a second doorway. Again, her eyes scanned the opening. The first couple entrances were digitally rendered similes. The faux wooden doors and painted on knobs, the faux glass windows and even the outline of the frames were poorly contrived similes, composites s never meant to open.
This discovery pushed the ends of Roake’s lips slightly upward. Pulling out of the plodding line of people, she gazed at the visible entrances with a fresh perspective. Her eyes passed over several openings before she noticed game pieces exiting from one particular shop.
“This way,” she tugged Jàl’s sleeve, pulling him toward the street. About to step off the curb, she recalled being deceived by the game’s circuitry from the previous level. Standing safely anchored on the sidewalk, her flipped her leg out, letting her foot cross the invisible plane of the curb and she waited. Her attempt failed to produce the sudden appearance of racing automobiles, her tactic broadened the smile infecting her lips.
“Come on,” she pulled Jàl. The two scrambled into the two lane road. A step later, the tinny blare of a car horn wiped the grin clear off her face. She turned at the sound. “Hurry,” she yelled, racing for the far side of the narrow street and the safety of the sidewalk.
Jàl ran one step behind. He watched Roake step off the street. He pushed off with his back leg. The angry grill of a car bore closer.
“Jàl. Watch …” Roake’s words hung in the air. Jàl felt his body freeze. He sensed the closeness of the auto but his head failed to respond, his eyes locked on Roake. Time stuttered as the street and buildings began to tremble. His body shook violently along with the digital surroundings. Roake’s features frozen in a twisted mask of concern.
The tremors brought flashes of images snapping across Jàl’s mind. Pictures of buildings, some destroyed, others reborn. Some crumbled to earth while terrified onlookers scrambled for safety, others in different stages of birth. Swaying lines of Verge surrounded exposed perimeters of concrete walls sunk deep in the ground. The monsters staring blindly into the abyss of the gaping foundations.
The walls and foundations faded. The images replaced by the sight of the globe. The surroundings, strange, unlike the levels of the game the pair had visited thus far. The prize sensed Jàl’s presence. It vanishes inside a strange structure. The buildings design peculiar, foreign, but yet, oddly familiar? The walls of the building vivid, the composition constructed with minute detail, the texture palpable. More real world than digital. Jàl stared after the globe, his mind storing details of the building into his memory.
The scream of the mechanical horn rode returned. The racket moments ahead of a nearing tide of loud cries and angry shrieks. Fingers dug into his collar bone, the painful grip breaking the spell holding his mind. His body lurched forward. The squeal of heated tires on the dark pavement whined from behind. The burning smell of rubber wafting upwards in clouds of black smoke.
“What just happened?” Roake’s face rested within inches of his face. Jàl cocked his head and caught a glimpse of the racing automobile behind his back. The call of the Verge climbed in crescendo, beating the stale air.
Jàl scrunched his face and shrugged. “The tremors. They seeped into this dimension. That…shouldn’t be …possible. An aberration of some form.” Sorting his scattered thoughts, Jàl shook free the troubling images.
Standing on tip toes, he swivelled his head looking for the unique building he saw in his mind. “The globe is not on this level. I can explain later, but first, the Verge.” He studied the crowds on the sidewalk. Random faces in the crowd turned and stared in their direction. The ring of yellow around the eyes betrayed the enemy walking among the human forms. At the detection of the beasts, the human disguises began to fall away revealing the wrinkled, sickly brown skin of the monsters. Large heads with the bulbous eyes and nose turned in his direction.
A blast from Roake’s particle rifle stirred Jàl into action. Her blasts cutting a swath into the mixed crowd filling the sidewalk. The pair knelt among the legs of the human decoys. Roake moved. Her body crouched over her knees, her feet shuffling, duck walking toward the entrance spotted earlier from the opposite street. The Verge lumbered closer. The monsters vision fixed on the two trying to escape. The Verge fired their weapons into the innocent game pieces. The sidewalk soon littered with shattered bodies.
Near the entrance, Roake spun on her feet and sprayed a stream of particle bursts outward to distract the monsters. “Get behind me,” she yelled over the curdling cries of the enemy. “I saw pieces exit from this entrance. The door could lead to safety.”
Jàl scootched up the low concrete steps. His hand reached up clasping on the knob. A half turn and he yanked the door outward. His heart dropped. The opening a false front. The digital rendition of the doorway incomplete. A false hope programmed into the video game.
“Nothing doing,” Jàl shouted down to Roake. He watched her cast a quick glance at his words. A shadow passed across her face.
“We’ll have to fight our way down the street. No choice,” she hollered back. “Stay low.” She instructed lifting from her crouched position. Pushing Jàl a head, the pair passed from the false entrance and waded deeper into the thinning crowds. Jàl followed Roake’s quickening pace. They approached the intersection on a green light. A stream of pieces continued onward to cross the road, the extra bodies shielding the pair as they fled from the heavy fire of the Verge.
Wrecked and discarded autos clogged the second street. Behind a tangle of damaged cars, Roake slipped from the tangle of bodies crowding the sidewalk and pressed her back tight to a metal bumper. Jàl breathed heavily from close by. Craning his neck to see farther down the block , he found his view negated by a clutter of obstacles. Drawing on his previous experience, he recalled the stacks of discarded vehicles and the door to escape hidden behind. The was of course if the games algorithms hadn’t reconfigured the playing field, he reminded himself.
“Stay low,” Roake commanded. Jàl shifted his body looking over at her. Roake gingerly crept near the edge of the cluster of discarded wrecks. He watched while Roake stretched to her full height behind the protection of a mangled car hood and gazed toward the far end of the block.
“The stacks of junk look about the same as last time,” she called down to him. “The gutted body of the car we sheltered in the last time through is where I remember, but, how did we escaped? I don’t seem to recall?”
“Hidden behind those hills of rusted metal is a door.” Jàl explained. “Inside. The interior is partially completed. A couple empty floors that… It doesn’t matter. The car at the bottom of the heap. That’s the immediate goal and that’s looking like a problem. Seems like the Verge have upped their firepower since we last ran this level?”
Roake rose to her feet again. She faced down the street watching the Verge slow march, then risked a fast look in the opposite direction before ducking back down behind the safety of the cars.
“There’s wrecks splayed all down the street. Easy enough to dodge from one pile to the next. The problem lies with the last few hundred yards. That we’ll have to cross in the open.”
“No alternate route leading behind those stacks of scrap metal. Our climb through the car didn’t produce the best results last time,” Jàl stated. Roake crept away, rose to her feet and used the protruding hood as cover once again. Jàl prayed for different route. The memory of Roake wounded again while they simply repeated the low percentage escape like previous attempt sent a shudder down his spine.
“I don’t see any other way.” Roake admitted upon her return. “Remember, we barely crawled into the interior before the Verge blasters found us. Those piles of junk aren’t all that high but I can’t see how we’d have the time to scramble over and if we failed, the attempt would leave us exposed for too long a time.”
The shelter of rusted cars rocked with blaster fire. The time for planning, over. Roake sprang to her feet. Bent over, she raced across a short span of exposed street then pulled up and motioned for Jàl to join. Sparks sprayed overhead and chunks of metal, sheared loose by the enemy fire, rained down over the trail the two ran.
At the final cluster of discarded autos, Jàl fought to control his heaving lungs while Roake peered up the street. The Verge continued forward in a slow, ambling pace. The stale air of the game grew warmer, the molecules heated by the probing beams of particle rifles.
“What if we blast our way into the car. Dissolve the metal door we near the pile? Save us time opening it, speed up our escape.” Jàl shouted above the sizzle of over-heated air and the screeching shrills approaching from down the street.
“I don’t know.” The tactical portion of Roake’s mind reviewed the consequences. “Might bring the pile down and complicate our exit, make our problem worse.” Stress lines frozen on Roake’s face softened as a glint of light twinkled in her eye. “How fast can you link up with the mainframe?” She asked. “After all, we don’t need to worry about revealing our position. The bloody monsters are marching right towards us.”
“Why? What do you have in mind?” Jàl asked.
“How much do you weigh,” Roake ran her eyes over Jàl’s slight frame. “A buck 70, maybe 180?” She guessed.
“With the equipment I carry, sure mid 170’s, I suppose.”
“These new bio suits. You said, act as an exoskeleton. Correct?”
“Yesssss.” Jàl drew out the word. “What do you have in mind? You’re rather confusing.”
Roake shrugged away his query. Rising slightly, she peered past a crumpled fender. The Verge had ambled past the stack of rusted autos the pair had first used as shelter. The monsters continued marching. Particle beams of searching fire bled over the street. The herd's collective thoughts bound the creatures movements, restricting the Verge from separating and flanking their prey.
“What I need you to do is concentrate on manipulating the programming. Delete the bottom car and leave us a tunnel to pass through.”
A puzzled look contorted Jàl’s face. “If I do that, I won’t be able to escape. I’m immobile while I link up, so I’m sorry, am I missing something?”
“I don’t have time to explain. You concentrate on clearing a path and I’ll worry about getting you to safety, but hurry, if the Verge get any closer, our avenue of escape closes.”
Jàl glanced from Roake up the way the screams and shrills approached. “Okay.”
“One more thing. Stand up and face back down the street, first.” Roake ordered pointing in the direction of the advancing beasts.
“It’ll be easy if I can picture what I’m doing.”
“Capture the image in your mind and swing around,” Roake insisted. “You’ll fair much better facing away.”
Braced against the twinning of minds Roake fought free of the fingers of paralyzing light that ringed her conscious, her mind tensing as Jàl’s conscious touch the grid and speed outward. Violently shaking her head, she drove away the urge to follow him into the network. A loud roar rose from the pit of her stomach and rushed past her lips freeing her will and driving her to action. In her mind, she called forward the suit’s schematics. A few simple brain impulses adjusted the bio-skeleton, routing the power supply.
With the guttural cry dying on her lips, Roake leapt from the ground, locked her arms around Jàl and left the shelter of the dilapidated autos, running. The extra weight of her partner slowed her step. Shafts of super-heated molecules dazzled the air. Her lungs burned from the added exertion and the particle singed atmosphere.
Roake raced. Her vision fixed on the crushed junker she and Jàl had used on the previous run through the level. Each step closer she increased her prayers for Jàl’s success in altering the game’s code and giving them a slight advantage. If the algorithms, learning and creating of new layers to the coding could thwart the pair, then why couldn’t Jàl work the system to complete the mission.
These thoughts egged Roake and her cargo forward. The bulk of Jàl’s body blocked most of the view as the pair fled, but past the edge of his side, a thin sliver of the targeted car remained in a blurry focus. A loud raucousness of piercing screams and cries thundered down from behind. Maybe her calculations about the beasts was wrong. Was it possible the meeting of Jàl’s mind with the games mainframe brought forward even larger numbers of the Verge?
The racket flooding the street threatened to overwhelm her thoughts as the probing of the particle rifles grew closer and closer. A few more steps she urged her fatigued legs. Her arms protested and her back contorted with a numbing pain. Then from the corner of her eye, the target car flickered then evaporated from sight. A gaping black hole yawned back. Time slowed. She felt the even heartbeat in Jàl’s chest and the shallow relaxed breath circulating through his body.
He did it, she remembered thinking. A couple more yards and freedom. These notions jotted across her mind at the same time a flash of light stole her vision. Then in rapid fashion, her mind captured snippets of reality. Jàl exploded out of her arms. His body immobile as it lurched backward. Did her ears actually detect the sound of his skull smacking against the ground or did her mind build a soundtrack to what her eyes witnessed.
She felt her body react to the explosion, instinctively turning away to escape the force of the blast. The move left her face to face with the lumbering Verge. The bulky heads of the monsters bobbing as their slow gait brought them within reaching distance, rifles raised, searing streams of heat particles glowing from the end of the guns.
The soldier in Roake refused to accept defeat. Her chest rose as she gulped the hot air into her lungs before releasing a second, louder roar of defiance. The gaping hole created by Jàl’s will beckoned from mere feet away. Scooping Jàl’s limp body off the road, she risked a quick glance at his face. Fluttering eyelids warned of his struggle to remain coherent. Determined, her legs pumped and her arms trembled with a spike of adrenaline, the combination propelling her forward down the final stretch of barren street and into the digital tunnel.
Darkness clawed at the edges of her brain as she staggered under the arch of discarded metal. Her lungs burned with exertion and the muscles in her arms threatened to relieve themselves of their burden. One foot followed the other. Her eyes dropped to Jàl’s face. A sigh of air left his body as he submitted to the collision with the road.
The cries and wailing of the Verge suddenly ceased. Roake twisted her neck. The opening Jàl created with his mind, shimmered. The crumpled body of the car reclaimed the hole at the bottom of the junk pile.
Roake took one last stumbling step. The weight of J al’s body to much for her waning strength. She sank to her knees. The air in front of her face brightened to incredible hues. Blotches of light too intense for the human eye to register. Her arms ignored her wish to shield her eyes before an all encompassing darkness swooped in and swallowed her world.
Jàl peeked from closed eye lids. A blank screen welcomed his return to the living. Shapes began forming the blank canvas as electrical impulses stirred neurones inside his brain. The slow awakening bringing the digital world back into existence.
Roake swam into focus. She sat hunched over on her knees. Her head lulled and her eye lids fluttered before she pried them open. Her eyes focused above his head on something behind where he lay. Jàl lungs filled with shallow breaths. Mesmerized, he watched the reemergence of the digital world, a flourish of colours and properties, as it coincided with his revived awareness. The deafness of silence accompanied the reintroduction of the games programming.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Roake’s comment shattered the silence. Jàl watched her push off the ground and rise to her feet. A beam of light scorched the ground near her feet. Stunned, Jàl turned from her words lifting his eyes upward to the towering pile of scrap metal. The bulky profile of a Verge silhouetted against the digital sky.
His instincts lagged. Roake’s hand clamped onto his arm dragging him closer to the wall. She stopped at the base of a door. Her free hand gripped the knob. The door held fast.
“Huh,” a rhetorical laugh erupted from deep within Roake’s gut. “What next?” She cursed. Raising her rifle, she struck the protruding lock with the butt of the rifle. The door swung outward. Roake pulled the metal slab out of the way and motioned for Jàl to enter. She chanced one last look to the top of the scrap heap. The single Verge was joined by his mates. The air between the scrap pile and the building heated with competing blasts of energy.
Roake flung herself through the opening pulling the door shut behind.
Level three opened different then the previous levels. Confused, Jàl looked about. His first experience through the portal not at all like what greeted him this time through the doorway. The stark interior of the incomplete building and the computer avatar from his first trip were no where in sight. Instead, the pair found themselves in the middle of a street. The rude blare of car horns greeted them. The traffic separating as it passed by.
“Follow me,” Jàl heard Roake’s shouted instructions carry over the street noise. He followed her as she stepped over to the closest sidewalk, the barrel of her rifle used to carve a path into the herd of human forms walking the sidewalk. Braced against the surging crowd, she lifted on her toes and looked around. Tugging Jàl’s shoulder, she swam across the foot traffic, stopping tight to a pile of crates stacked outside a business.
Roake tested the stack’s stability before catching a foot on the bottom crate and raising above the obstacles on the busy sidewalk.
“Whoa. This is different,” she called down to Jàl. “Get up here.” She ordered.
Jàl found a step and lifted to Roake’s height. A view of the crowded game board unfolded. The customary stacked street scenario of the first two levels gave way to a combination of perpendicular avenues. Jàl studied the surrounding structures, his curiosity piqued by subtle changes. He puzzled over the emerging vividness captured in the panoramic view swept by his gaze. Added depth to the buildings employed consistencies of real world quality.
The game pieces walking the sidewalks appeared bland, washed out images of poor digital quality compared to the refined definition of the rendered buildings. Even the exposed patches of paved street emitted a fuller quality. A certain depth that messed with his sensory perception.
“A lot more doorknobs to rattle,” Roake’s words added credibility to Jàl’s musings. Jàl focused on the nearest doorway. Scrutinizing the entrance, he picked out the contrasting perspectives and minute shadowing that cast the imagery in a depth unavailable with one or two dimensional renderings.
From one business to the next, Jàl looked down the line of shops on the opposite block. Fifty percent contained doorways worth physical checks. So three blocks of walking door to door searching for the globe, time consuming at the best, playing into the Verge’s hands by remaining in the level for an extended length of time, at worst.
Roake stepped off her perch back down to the sidewalk. Without a word, she stepped a few feet to the side, stopping in the lit recess of the store’s doorway. The brick façade, porous and brittle, the aged patina of the steel door frame marked with dimples of rust and the door itself, streaked varnish finish, cracked and peeling. A pair of matching arched windows inlayed at the top of the wooden slab, dark from within.
Jàl stepped into view when Roake tried the door knob. The knob stood solid, frozen in place, the glass in the window simply a blank screen indicating the lack of a real opening.
“Next,” Roake called spinning to re-enter the foot traffic on the sidewalk. Standing her ground, she looked forward and then back to her left. A handful of shops remained in that direction. Jàl followed her lead as she clung tight to the buildings and walked against the flow of people.
The next store’s entrance consisted of a cheap digital rendering. This followed for the remainder of the stores on the back end of the block. At the intersection. The pair, hidden in the camouflage of the waiting crowd, crossed with the trudging pack of game pieces on the green light. The lanes of the street suspiciously empty.
Jàl walked along, his mind off mission as he marvelled at the realistic streetscape blooming from the perpetual learning of the programs algorithms .
Each footstep taken in absence. His only contact with the present, the hairs on the back of his neck tingled with a sixth sense type warning of untold danger lurking close by. With his head tilted down, he cast sideway glances at the passing faces in the crowds. From under furrowed eyebrows, he searched the blank faces as they passed for eyes ringed with a yellow hue, the markings of the camouflaged monsters.
Jàl paced his scrutiny of the game pieces with quick eyefuls of the surrounding structures. The expanding thought that each level deeper into the game the pair travelled, the line between reality and digital make belief became less defined. Questions piled onto his already burdened mind. Random foray’s in Roake’s direction revealed a similar uneasiness with each stride she travelled.
His thoughts cleared when, at the door of the third business on the block, she yanked him away from the stream of traffic into the shops entrance. The door opened into a retail space. The interior a surprise but somehow not unexpected. The interior smelled musty and stale. Dust particles drifted in streaks of light flowing into the store.
A strange layout of metal shelves divided the interior. The shelves stocked with a myriad of goods. Materials familiar, but yet, not of the 24th century. Jàl lifted a container off a shelve and blew a crown of dust from the can. The feel of the container, the first clue to the history of the merchandise.
Goods in the cloud city came packaged in carbon based containers. The rarity of tin or most any metal, foreign to the population living high above the clouds. Jàl twisted his head shifting memories learned of the middle class to the front of his mind. He searched his memory of the city caught between his home of Sky Dwellers and the groundliers. Could they possibly still have access to tin products.
The middle class did have limited access to some metals. That part he knew, but did they have the abundance to store food supplies in.
“You’ve moved among the middle class,” Jàl tossed the tin to Roake. “Do you recall if their food was stored in these type of containers?”
“Nah. I wish. The middle class is slightly better than savages. Unclean barbarians if you want my take. No.” She answered. Her head shaking to back her words. “They use a type of pulp products. The materials recycled for so long that the packaging has a permanent grime built in.”
“So they had no sealed tins?” Jàl prodded. Roake shook her head a second time tossing the tin back.
“No. Nothing like that that I can recall. But remember the capacity I was down there on. Most of my time was in hiding. Working in the shadows. There is likely many things about that city that I missed.”
“Still.” Jàl mumbled, “How would the algorithms learn of this.” His knuckle tapped on the side of the container. A dull thudding echo replied to his fingers. So realistic. Jàl fumbled with his belt, retrieving a locked knife.
A flick of his wrist shook the carbon hardened blade free. Applied pressure from his thumb activated the a heating element chipped into the handle. The blade glowed red. Jàl sliced the blade over the top of the container. The upper portion of the can falling away.
Through the gloved material cloaking his fingers, he rubbed it along the sharp metal ridge of the exposed circular edge. “Incredible,” he mused. Jàl stared at the contents. Yellow slices inside a bath of syrupy liquid.
Checking to insure the edge of his knife cooled, he dug the tip of the blade into the can and lifted a mushy yellow wedge. Lowering his face, he sniffed the food item then rotated the can and studied the picture on the label.
The slice of “peach” on the end of his blade resembled the picture printed on the can. Shrugging, he raised the slice to his lips.
“Are you crazy! What are you planning on doing?” Roake exclaimed, returning to his side from a quick recon of the buildings interior. Her hand flashed to deflect the path of the knife’s blade.
“Just curious.” Jàl said reflexively. Shaking the slice of fruit free and watching it splat on the floor. “Smells pretty good for a digitally conjured prop.” He said, replacing the can on the shelf. “but the question remains. How is it possible for the algorithms…” He waved his arm indicating the stocked interior of the store, “to produce a interior scene of this detail?”
The question hung in the air, choked from his mouth as a paralyzing spasm rooted and spread from the base of Jàl’s skull. A fog revealing scattered images paraded behind glazed eyes. The assault accompanied by violent vibrations beginning under his feet and climbing his legs. The flashes of images growing familiar with their increased frequency. The beginning of the sequence, the implosion of a building, led back to the same flow of snippets that recently haunted his thoughts.
The severe shaking of the surroundings climaxed, easing his lapse of disconnection. In his minds eye, a vision panned across the interior of a second store. The promising sight of wooden ammunition crates.
Then, he envisioned the elusive globe as it blinked into being, taunting, then within a heart beat, the image vanished through a door sitting askew at the rear of the store. The sequence of events inviting Jàl to join.
As the pain ebbed from his skull, the film rolled outside the store, hinting at the buildings location. The outside markings reminded him of the incident from the previous level, the façade familiar with the previous sighting stored in his conscious.
Reality arrived rudely with the high pitched screams of the hunting Verge. The brief, unwanted connection, laying exposed the pair’s location. Jàl blinked his eyes back the present. Roake moved from his side and walked toward the windows at the front of the shop. He watched her swing her blaster and cradle it in her hands. Vulgar curses muttered under her breath travelled back to his ears as she looked outside .
Jàl stood still and sorted his thoughts. The building that appeared in the fog, he took a second to locate in his memory.
“I know where to look for the globe,” he spoke to her back, “or at least clues to follow from where it rested a brief time ago. The place is only a few doors away.” He said stepping close to Roake and following her gaze out the front windows.
The plan was to move fast. Attack and keep the enemy off balance long enough to traverse the hundred yard span of sidewalk between store fronts. Jàl watched the crowd in front of the store transition from preprogrammed game fillers to a combination of human replicates and bug eyed, snout breathing creatures. Nerves tightened observing the change of the crowd milling about aimlessly on the sidewalk yards from where he stood.
Through the grimy, film streaked glass the transformation occurring feet away outside of the window, Jàl felt his confidence wane. Soon, a notably higher percentage of Verge dotted the crowd the outside the shop, the creatures outnumbering the contingent of human pawns. Another new twist with the advanced level of the game, J àl realized. A groan rumbled in his chest, his outlook matched by Roake.
“The odds are not good,” she commented. “Is there another way? Can we blast through the walls into the next space and so on? Stay undercover and off the sidewalk?”
“Not likely. Remember. We’re inside a digital world. While the program produces a full panoramic picture that tricks our senses on the outside, the interiors for the majority of these buildings do not exist. No amount of blasted particles will allow us to slip along silently and out of sight.”
Roake dropped her hand to the munitions belt wrapped around her waist. “Ready your rifle?” She ordered. “Once we walk through that door, we’ll need every ounce of luck we can muster.”
Jàl’ activated the long guns safety. The chamber flashed green. “Stay low and tight to the base of the store fronts. We need to cut the shortest, quickest line past the crowded sidewalk. Oh, move among the game pieces, use their bodies as shields. The beasts vastly out number our weapons so we’ll need the advantage.” She warned. “This is about to get messy.”
Roake features tightened as her eyes fell on Jàl’s face. With a nod she turned and placed her hand on the door. A blood curdling yell ripped from her throat. The barrel of the particle rifle in her arms lowered and ready, she left the safety of the store. Singed flesh and super-heated air moved along with the crowd, flowing along the sidewalk.
Jàl stepped close on Roake’s heals. Pulses of particle matter slashed the air around his head. Is the store where he remembered, the thought rode his mind. Self doubt gripped his shoulders as pieces of digital human husks fell against him. Digital bodies sizzled under the intense fire of the enemy. Jàl caught glances of Roake as she weaved among the oblivious sea of bodies. The pulses of her rifle, methodical, as she tracked and assaulted the bug headed creatures.
A blast of light pinged off of Jàl’s shoulder. The force pushed him off path. The bio suit absorbed the bulk of the beam, but he flinched at the stinging burn left by the incredible heat of contact. Ducking, he snaked forward, bending lower lose himself among legs the shuffling game pieces. With his rifle aimed sideways and up, he caught snippets of the monsters advancing to seal his escape.
All around, bodies flopped and crashed off of him and littered the ground. Tripping hazards forced him to concentrate more on stepping around or over the scattered obstacles and less time tracking the enemy. A quick glance to the right revealed the short distance they had travelled. A quick scan ahead failed to locate the building remembered from the dream.
“UGMM!” The painful exclamation echoed back to his ears. Jàl swung his head up and forward in time to witness Roake stumble. A mist of scorched air wafted from her side. Fibres of the blue jumpsuit Roake wore over her bio armour glowed red around the seared edges.
Roake faltered shoulder first into a forest of legs. Her weight forward knocking a swath of game pieces off balance. The disruptive action rippled outward hollowing an expanding circle cut at the edge of the busy walkway.
Jàl stepped over the splayed bodies. His concern for Roake yanked his focus off the merging Verge. A shower of particle blasts probed the bowl of writhing, tangled body parts of the human forms. Jàl’s free hand snatched at the cloth on Roake’s shoulder, lifting her free of the entanglement. Pushing her ahead, he tracked to the side away from the fallen pieces and tighter to the exteriors of the passing walls containing the businesses.
“Can you walk,” he shouted above the thundering din of the circling monsters. Roake shook her head and limped forward. Her arm outstretched and sliding along the store front for stability. Between pulses of his rifle, Jàl snuck glances at the passing shops. The words he spoke so surely about in knowing the globe’s location faded allowing doubt to filter into the cracks of his mind, eroding what confidence remained. Did he let an untested theory escort him and Roake to their end?
The drag of battle warped all concept of time. Fear wrestled to paralyze his mind. How far had they travelled? Had they gone too far and passed the opening? Did the recent appearance of the globe in his thoughts consist solely of wishful thinking rather than a route to escape the level. The growing enigma clouded all rational.
In protective mode, Jàl’s mind partitioned his brain from the raging battle. His left arm holding the blaster fell to his side as he lagged among the plodding bodies of the digital crowd. His head turned away from the carnage on the sidewalk, his eyes locked on the passing fronts of the chain of stores.
The sizzle of enemy fire gouged holes into the exterior of the buildings, the searing blasts ignored in his singular focus. Unfettered by the danger surrounding him, he matched pace with the blank shells of digital humans that to this point survived the Verge blasters. Basic instincts guided his feet as they avoided the obstacles of fallen bodies.
A sunken doorway containing a drab coloured door called an end to his hunt. The picture he had saved in his mind. A blast of air shot from his nostrils. Relief that he wasn’t wrong snatched him from his trance. The excitement bubbled as he turned.
“ROAKE,” he shouted as he searched around for his partner. Her name died in his throat as she flashed into view a micro-second before a ball of intense, blinding light erased everything. In stop framed motion he watched Roake’s body lift off the ground. An expanding surge of energy flung her into the narrow entrance. The impact of her body caught his and drove the pair back.
The sequence so fast that the rise of panic threatening to paralyze Jàl’s movements disappeared in the same instance as his breath stampeded from his chest when the weight of Roake’s body crunched against him. He remembered the odd sound of breaking and tearing lumber as the door frame gave way under the combination of their bodies.
Darkness flickered before his eyes. A desperate battle raged in the wounded tissues of his brain as the trauma of the injury threatened to shut things down and bring about a safe reboot. Slow seconds passed where he wallowed between light and dark. A final flutter of his eye lids returned his mind to the present.
The fire light of sparks danced and arced among the wispy smoke floating into the shop through the sudden opening. The spectacle filtered past his pupils and pinged his brain. Advancing past the light show, a more primitive worry clawed at his slowly wakening mind.
His lungs ached from the shortage of life sustaining oxygen. Jàl’s eyes flew open as he struggled to fill his lungs. A restricted gulp of foul air burned the back of his throat. His anxiety eased. Staring into the blackened void of the ceiling Jàl calmed his breathing. Then came the problem of lifting off his back. His heart rate built a second time before his mind re-focused and he realized Roake lay motionless across his chest, the weight of her body anchoring him to the floor.
Gently, he rolled from under. His hand protected her head from smashing against the floor as he wiggled free. Dragging a knee under, he crouched close. Fragmented thoughts bounced within the walls of his skull until a compromising order returned. Jàl stared into Roake’s face. The hairs on his hand held close to her nose fluttered with her shallow breaths.
Jàl gently pried her eyelid open. A milky film clouded the white of her eye. Still crouched low, he swivelled his head slowly recording the store’s interior before returning to the entrance and the smoke buffeting in from the street. A shudder ran the length of his spine. What caused the feeling, he failed to resolve until his ears provided the answer.
The lack of sound flooding into the interior from the street became almost as deafening was the curdling cries of the games nemesis. Why? And what type of new weapon did the Verge employ? Not one that he recalled coding into the game’s program. A brief, frightening thought of becoming a casualty of his own creation scratched at his conscious.
Jàl quieted his brain. His priorities returned to Roake lying dazed at his feet. Jàl stood and shook off the remnants of the concussive blast before bending down and gripping the cloth of Roake’s uniform. Pressure coloured his face purple as he strained to lift her to her feet. Looping her arm over his shoulder, he took a wobbly step away from the front of the shop.
In the centre of the floor stood a table like the one he pictured briefly in the flashes that invaded his thoughts a short time previous. Resting by the table, he searched the barren space with more earnest. The layout unfolded like his dream except for the doorway leading from the store and into the safety of the next level. Slowly, he studied the shadows blanketing the interior walls.
From the angle of his head, and with the help of a stray ray of light angling across the side wall, the hint of a possible escape peeked from the otherwise shadowed area. Bolstering his strength, Jàl straightened under Roake and limped toward the shard of light and the portion of hidden doorway.
Balancing Roake’s weight precariously on his shoulder, he stopped tight to the wall. The only hint of an opening exposed by the stray shaft of light falling across the wall. Jàl’s free hand swept along the smooth finish feeling for the rest of the outline. The lack of light refused to release the full extent of the doorway jealously protected by the dark shadows of the store’s interior.
It didn’t take a huge amount of brain power to realize the problem he faced. Without sufficient light, the gateway to the next level would remain hidden. To flood the interior with light and coax the door from the darkness, he had to link with the computer, preform a neural-interface and force light into the space.
That part was all well and fine… except, when connected to the grid, his body waited in a state of inertia. One of the two he could accomplish under his own power, but no way to both call the light and continue through the door.
Puzzling over the conundrum ended abruptly as a loud resurgence of wails and bellowed cries of anger breeched the store entrance, spreading across the interior. Instinctively, Jàl felt his mind soar. Strings of blurred code, lines of dashes and dots transformed his thoughts to electrical impulses and meshed with the computer symbiont, the two surfing the digital reality.
A short prayer whispered across his lips. A false promise to a deity no longer relevant in his society, but oddly, the words calmed his thoughts. The solution lay in flooding the interior of the store with light, exposing the gateway to the next level. The second part, escaping with Roake once the void opened, well, perhaps a miracle or an angel would take pity.
A stab of light seeped under Roake’s sagging eyelids. Warped images swam in a surrealistic dream and poked at her brain. A disconcerted pattern of brick floated then stabilized. The reason she stood facing the wall, momentarily escaped her fragmented state of mind. Then the outline of a passage way bloomed with the cascade of ascending light. A guttural shrill warned from behind reminding of pending danger. The now familiar roar nudged past the fog shrouding her conscious and triggered an ingrained response.
A tilt of her head showed her supported by Jàl’s shoulder. His features relaxed as he stared blankly at the same wall. Instincts overruled thought. The light and the increasing racket, an unresponsive partner and the brick wall giving birth to a doorway.
A spike in her heart beat pushed a surge of adrenaline through her veins. Roake tightened her arm around Jàl and stretched her other hand for the protruding door knob. A twist of her wrist, then a shove to clear the newly summoned gateway and she pulled Jàl along as she dove for the opening.
The two spilled onto a sidewalk in a tangle of arms and legs. A sharp clap ruptured the air from behind. Roake rolled to her side and tensed. Her rifle swung around at ready. Her eyes locked on the building uncertain if something sinister followed them through the gap.
Jàl groaned and lifted his head. With his thoughts disrupted, the hole willed by his mind began to fade. Bricks floated in the space. Dozens of the small, rectangular orange blocks flashed and popped, fizzled and darted as the computer brain of the game regenerated the spoiled façade. Short seconds passed until the outline of the opening dissolved into nothing more than a memory.
From the mending wall to a quick check on Roake rising from the sidewalk to an unobstructed view of the new level across the barren streetscape, Jàl lay still, allowing his mind to update.
Behind his back, he missed the change settling over his partner. Roake’s facial features contorted from one of complete surprise to pain and confusion. Garbled words slipped from her throat. With a groan and twist, she recoiled and clutched her stomach. Her knees buckled dropping her to the hard surface of the concrete sidewalk.
Strange sounds emanated from his partner garnering his attention.
“What…” he began as his gaze settled on the downed soldier. Raising off the concrete, he knelt beside Roake. “Are you hit?” Fear crept into his voice as he scanned for wounds.
Past hooded eyelids, he noticed a film blanket her eyes as her gaze settled on his face. He watched Roake’s lips moved but the words fail. Colour drained from her face and the natural pink of her skin changed to a sickly, pale sheen. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
Silently, Roake’s lips formed segments of unfinished sentences while she pleaded with her eyes. Jàl failed to understand. Then, Roake bounded upright, left his side and quickly bent low over the curb. Behind her back, Jàl heard the retching sounds of bile as it escaped her stomach and flowed into the gutter.
“Oh my god,” Jàl’s voice choked. Emotions foreign to his psyche exposed unfamiliar feelings as he watched Roake spew the initial symptoms of the deadly virus. The very sickness that claimed the health of many Sky Dwellers and the very reason he and Roake had entered the game. A desperate effort of locating an alternate route to the groundliers lair and the promise of a chance to return home with a cure to end the horrible suffering.
Roake’s vision shimmered as she sank to her knees. Seconds, maybe minutes, passed before her consciousness registered Jàl’s voice.
“Roake. Can you hear me. Roake! We have to move.” Her body shook as his hands clamped onto her shoulders. “Take my arm.” She heard him plead. “You need to get to your feet. We can’t remain on the street. It’s imperative we find shelter.” Jàl’s words echoed across the mist soaking her conscious. She felt his hand under her arm. The desperate grip of his fingers while they pinched her skin as he fought to lift her.
Dizzy and depleted, she weakly sunk her fingers into the sleeve of his jacket. Her strength draining, she scrambled to maintain a tight grip as he stood and pulled her to her feet.
“Are you okay?” Jàl’s voice penetrated the fog swirling in her head as she stumbled along to his lead.
“I don’t know.” She replied. “Dizzy and nauseous.” She heard her own strained voice sound foreign to her own ears. What had just happened, she forced her brain to recalibrate and find an answer. Then from somewhere in the fog of uncertainty, surfaced the unthinkable.
“The virus. I think you have contracted the virus.” She railed against the fear in Jàl’s words. The rush from the Verge, the impact on her implant. There had to be several reasons for the way her body reacted. But the virus. No. That she refused to even entertain.
“This way,” Jàl’s words wormed into her head, knifing through her doubts. “We’ve got to get off the sidewalk.” Even without seeing, she sensed her partner frantically looking around.” Look. Over there.” She twisted her head following the sound of his voice. “That shop. The doorway looks passable. Maybe we can hide in there. We need someplace quiet and time to think.”
The beginnings of a smile climbed Roake’s lips despite the waves of nausea roiling in her gut. The genius known as Jàl Condor. Such a hero. The thought sent tingles down her body. The self-centred brainiac, all of a sudden taking charge and all.
Roake pried her eyelids apart. The light shining down on the street drove hot pokers of pain into her brain. Wincing, she raised a forearm to shade her eyes and looked past the ache. An outline of the streetscape morphed into focus. Her foot collided with a curb. Stumbling, she leaned heavier on Jàl. She stumbled along with his aide as they crossed the street. The entrance to the store only yards ahead.
“Come on, come on,” Jàl urged, his chest heaving under her weight, his lungs wheezing with each gasp of breath. The sidewalk, level under her dragging feet, reared up to trip her when the pair encounter the steps leading up into the building. Jàl’s grip tightened around her. Roake felt the strain in his body as he fought to lift her up the final step. Trying to help, she shuffled her feet. The added movement sent the pair stumbling. Her motor skills scrambled, her basic instincts off-line.
More grunting and cursing broke the barrier of her delirium. The skin on her face burnt from unknown heat. Drops of sweat wormed into her partially shuttered eyes. Stale air of the closed building greeted her as Jàl’s tight grip loosed and she melted, sliding to the floor. Footsteps retreated to a loud clang of the building’s doors as it closed and echoed.
Lumped onto the hard surface of the floor, Jàl’s breathing sounds loud in her ears. In the fog caused by her illness, she senses him kneeling nearby while he gulps air into his lungs. The sound grows louder as he crouches closer. His hand cool as it lightly caresses her forehead.
“There’s no one else here, but we’re still exposed. I’ll catch my breath and find us a better place to rest,” he promised.
Roake tried to answer. Tried to thank him for his quick thinking, but her words died in her throat, never crossing her lips. From the sitting puddle, she sank lower. All the muscles required to support her body failed as she sprawled out on the cold, faux concrete floor.
Roake’s eyelids fluttered. Jàl moved the chair closer and watched intently waiting for her to wake. A whispered moan hissed from her lips.
“Lay still,” Jàl soothed. “One hand pressed a corner of Roake’s vest gently against her forehead to absorb the rivulets of sweat forming to cool her fevered skin. He hoovered in the darkness of the nearly empty space. The pair sufficiently hidden behind remnants of furniture conjured by the assigned algorithms in creating the expanding program.
His thoughts floundered with unfamiliar feelings, rambled from one avenue of exploration before switching gears and side tracking in a completely random direction. The illness consuming Roake held the rational part of his brain hostage. Irrational thoughts weakened his resolve and threatened to expose the relative safety of the store by reaching out to the over-lying grid in search of much needed answers.
Jàl fought his addiction for knowledge he knew lay a minds whisper away, taunting from the memory contained in the banks of computers. A risk growing harder to resist as he sat worriedly hunched over Roake playing his best version of nurse maid. Several hours passed in silence while he stared down into the slick sheen spread across her pale skin. The strange feeling of empathy racked his soul with each tortured moan and unconscious roll of her infected body.
The longer she lay dormant and unconscious, the deeper his thoughts sank, weighed down by a form of doubt that could easily lead to crippling panic. What if she remained in this state? The thought of leaving Roake, sick and helpless, as he raced off to find the globe and best the digital reality presented a unique set of circumstances. Without leaving her side, it wasn’t possible to complete the mission and to complete the mission he’d have to leave her lying vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the game.
In a term derived from an long forgotten game of strategy he’d stumbled upon in the archives of ancient earth, check-mate.
Jàl’s fingers rubbed along the grained edge of the wooden chair. His hands kept busy while he perched on the edge of the seat. Bent at the waist, his upper body rocked back and forth, his eyes riveted on Roake’s face, studying the smallest quiver of her nostrils and the slight rise of her chest as she burned with fever.
The genius IQ setting him above all others created an array of fireworks inside his brain. Equations and formulas, practical thought and learned history all fought to the front of his thoughts leaving him a helpless prisoner of his own device.
The unfamiliar feelings caused by the sight of his friend suffering the dreadful illness railed against a mechanical, calculating logic. The result, in effect, a shutdown of the nervous system.
Strange visions pried his being free of its mortal vessel. His mind soared out of the dark room and floated on a phantom breeze. A strange sensation accompanied his ethereal voyage as the entrance of the store floated by underneath. The outside, welcoming in an anxious way.
A green mist mixed with the daylight greeted his arrival. Groups of game pieces populated the sidewalks, the human forms frozen in mid movement. Past the safety of the sidewalks, the paved streets cluttered with motionless cars. The vehicles static, but his mind noted the engine exhaust as it lifted on unseen wings of a breeze, climbing to meet him.
Faces in the crowds flitted by underneath. Some looking ahead, some staring across and a few, with a tinge of yellow ringing their eyes, tilted upward. Jàl’s passing captured in the frozen gaze of his enemy. The monsters unable to halt his progress, yet the large pupils of their bulbous eye tracked his movements.
The scene shifted. Buildings from past nightmares introduced a new street. One he’d never witnessed in his romp through the Mixed-Reality dimension, but by now, growing all too familiar because of the ghost of images loosed upon his thoughts from earlier in the game.
The buildings lay exposed in different stages of completion. The spirit of Jàl’s being floated close to the brick behemoths. High pitched cries and swirling whines clawed at the air and assaulted his mind. The building’s foundations sparkled and fizzled in a reality caught between alternating dimensions.
An image took form behind the veiling mist. The obstructed apparition hinted of the illusive Globe, the outline in the mist transforming into a translucent embodiment much like the avatar from a previous visit. Intrigued, Jàl studied the spirits face. Her lips moved but the words failed to span the distance between the two. The manifestation’s arm pointed down toward the forming buildings. The structures fluctuate between digital renderings and a version of reality. Jàl ’s mind soared while deciphering the meaning.
A vicious jerk yanked his trapped thoughts free. In his mind’s eye he witnessed the physical world threaten to shatter amidst the twisting and convulsing of a terrifying agony. A last, fleeting look revealed scores of Verge, large, bulbous faces pointed heaven ward, the monster’s faces gripped with disbelief as the reality of their world crumbled.
The result, in effect, the tortured cries of a nervous system on the edge of collapse. The imagined aftershocks sparked a twinkle of awareness in Jàl’s fracturing mind. The deeper Jàl sank into the trance, the faster he rocked, the tighter his grip on the wooden arms of the chair as they slid back and forth, his weight held precariously on the edge of the wooden seat.
The actions continued uninhibited by time or circumstance until the friction of gripping flesh wore past the lacquered finish of the chair’s arm. The disturbed material responded by freeing a thin sliver of wood, the loose element pressed deep into the flesh of Jàl’s finger.
The prick of pain altered the trajectory of Jàl’s downward spiral. The sliver of wood igniting nerves and wiring a response of discomfort that travelled the fibres in his arm and pinged his sensory receptors of the foreign anomaly. With a shift in paradigm, the rocking and rubbing shifted.
Jàl’s recovery started with the realization of the rough texture of the wood frame. Digital copies lacked all and any properties able to produce such a sensation. The minuscule fragment of reality stuck in his finger, a totally unrelated thought. He shook himself away from the edge of the mental abyss, straightening in his chair. With out attempting to remove the pain inducing prop, he glanced around the room.
The darkness of his mind opened to the dim lit interior, the poor lighting revealed little more than layers of shadows. Hidden along the back of the mostly deserted space, among the few pieces of sparse furnishings, Jàl glanced at the table supporting the feverish Roake.
Curiosity moved his hand. With the aid of the sensitive skin wrapping the tips of his fingers, he contemplated the unusual texture of the piece. The actual feel of wood not overly unusual, nor the arm of a chair, but put the two together in a world borne of digital reproductions and…
Jàl rubbed his finger tips together. The spark that flickered in his conscious sputtered. What had broke the trance? Like a great awakening waited just out of grasp. The haunting feeling of knowing something very important beckoned but a firewall surrounded his dulled mind and refused to take the final step to understanding.
The sharp throb of pain directed his attention back to the sliver. Jàl raised his hand close to his face. The light left little hope of his eyes narrowing his search. Jàl placed the stuck finger in his mouth and ran his tongue over the hurt. The nub scratched across the nerves. Trial and error and minutes of probing, his teeth gripped the sliver as he pulled his finger away. Careful not to drop the minute piece of stray wood, he brought his hand close to his eye.
The sliver melded with the light and hid the minuscule object from examination by his brain but the action proved advantageous. Digital renderings lacked the composition to produce stray chunks of wood.
From the sliver trapped in his finger tips, Jàl pressed his other hand tight to the table top. The texture easily distinguished from a simple, one dimensional rendering. The two pieces radiated with a quality lacking in the digital frame work. Jàl’s fingers played across the surfaces, his brain trying for a conclusion it knew existed but remained just beyond reach.
Pushing away from the chair, he stumbled to his feet and walked the few steps toward a pile of furniture draped in thick plastic. Drawing the cover away, he bent low, tilting his head to take advantage of the weak light available.
Again his fingers relayed messages to his brain that his eyes were slow to detect. These pieces also reflected the multiple textures one would expect of products created in the real world. Jàl knelt and touched the floor. The concrete cold and coarse. Curiosity burned. The lack of light frustrating.
He glanced back where Roake lay. He picked out dull reflections where light highlighted small samples of her silhouette. They were still inside the Mixed-Reality dimension, of that he was certain, but his short reconnaissance of the room’s interior convinced him that the space would fit comfortably outside the games parameters. The pieces of furniture, with their cloth and wood finishes, obviously marked them as ancient artifacts but still…
Could the algorithms have reached the point where they were able to decipher the reality of the groundliers world? Jàl felt his heartbeat increase with anticipation. He was close to finding a portal to the earth’s surface? Perhaps the dreams and images that rocked his brain during the tremors were a map to follow? He needed more information then the few samples that sat close by. The blinding darkness annoyed him. A scan of the room might reveal more clues but he feared bringing a light source to bare. Touching the grid meant a visit by the Verge.
Jàl worked his way back to the chair. His eyes searched the shadows around Roake’s sleeping body as if an answer would appear. In his search, his eyes tripped upon the cartridge belt wrapped around her waist. Jàl stood in such a hurry his chair tipped back and banged off the floor.
Grabbing the stock of his rifle left leaning against the table, he moved into a cleared section of the room and dug a particle cartridge free of his belt. Placing the plastic capsule on the floor, he lined the butt of his rifle with the bullet, readied his arms, then lifted his face, staring past the dark toward a wall. A breath leaked from his lips as he steadied his rapidly beating heart and with a quick strike, slammed the butt of the gun down.
His breath froze in his throat. The brief light filled the room. The wall where he locked his gaze exploded into a vision that challenged his brain. Jàl gasped at the image. Even with the lack of time to capture more of the reveal, a conclusion settled on him. The level he and Roake had stepped into no longer resembled the game he had created all those years ago.
By no means could he have imagined the spectacle he witnessed. A second cartridge met the butt of his rifle. His eyes focused in a different direction. The flash of light returned the same result. The interior no longer favoured the digital world.
Excitement fuelled his growing curiosity. How did the program accomplish the realism? Could a possible gateway to the groundliers world be in sight? Jàl considered the snatches of proof he sat amongst, careful to restrain the threads of hope. The changes to the algorithms may confirm his theory but finding the globe remained crucial. The collected information gathered inside the memory banks would be paramount to the completion of the mission. How could he use this information to complete the game? A mission that became increasingly difficult by the illness consuming Roake.
Sitting quietly in the dark, Jàl wallowed in his thoughts. Theory and probabilities mixed with reason and formulated understanding scored the tracks of his mind. A fevered moan interrupted the computations swirling behind his unseeing eyes.
Jàl blinked the room into focus. Roake lay only feet away. The light of a new day chased the darkness into hiding. Unsure of what to do, Jàl lay the back of his hand across his friend’s forehead. Her skin warm and clammy. Bending close, he lay his ear next to Roake’s mouth. Shallow wheezing breaths whispered from her lips.
The excitement of the night’s discovery now distant as concern for his stricken partner tugged him crashing back to reality.
“I wish I knew what to tell you. How to reassure you that everything will turn out fine.” Jàl rested the palm of his hand on Roake’s shoulder. “I’ll have to leave you here while I continue our search for the globe. Now more then ever is the need to find my way to the groundliers home.” He turned and gazed toward the opposite end of the store. Silently he watched the light of day stream in through the grimy glass windows.
Details of the stores interior made his thoughts drift. Wherever his eyes touched, a sense of realism returned. The materials composing the interior were well past some random digital rendering. Knowing he currently existed inside the Mixed-Reality dimension was barely enough to convince his brain that what he was seeing wasn’t real. The level of the game had transformed completely. At least inside this building. But what about once he walked out the door?
Jàl scanned the area near the door. His and Roake’s weapons lay on the ground. One last look about the room and he knew what came next. Reluctantly he accepted the path he must take.
“You’ll be alright while I’m gone,” he said shaking his head to convince himself of his words. He stole one last glance down at the virus racked Roake to insure his decision was sound before he walked away. Near the door he knelt and slung the strap of Roake’s gun over his shoulder then cradled his rifle in his hand and gazed out the window next to the door.
The sidewalk remained barren with the slow beginning of the new day. The prospects of what he imagined he’d see blocked by the grime covered glass. Jàl mentally prepared for what he was certain came next. His finger caressed the trigger of the gun as he swung the door open and ventured into the light of morning. He paused in the shelter of the store’s entrance.
His view lay unobstructed. The fact the vicinity loomed bare failed to register as his eyes greedily ran the length of the sidewalk then the street before circling back to study the composition of the front wall of the store. A trick of the brain or…
A couple feet later and the game began filling in the missing pieces. Soon, the sidewalk choked with human forms. Scything his way past a standing huddle stalled in his way the puzzlement of the games realistic vista released the grip on his mind at the discovery of an unnerving surprise. Jàl took a step back, fitting into the group of bodies huddled on the sidewalk.
Out in the open, mixed among the human forms, a pair of Verge stood fully exposed on the opposite sidewalk. The creatures in the midst of the early crowd. Jàl puzzled at the different tactics adopted by the level’s programming. Until now, the creatures only revealed themselves when he melded with the mainframe and surrendered his position. The day was new and he’d been careful, so how had these two discover his location?
Jàl squeezed another peek past the stand of game pieces. The Verge remained across the street, motionless. Their eyes looked away from where he hid. Jàl’s breath caught in his throat as his eyes strayed from monsters. Scanning the morning crowds he picked out other Verge dotted amongst the crowds of random pieces. To his relief, none of the monsters had noticed him yet.
Careful, he matched the steps of the crowds lumbering down the sidewalk. Step for step he walked. His eyes darted between the locations of Verge. His heart raced with anticipation. Scared to stare too long at any of the monsters, he stuck with the crowd, bending his eyes forward and relying on a hidden sense to signal an alert.
Three quarters of the way to the corner, Jàl stepped around a pair of bodies slowing to a halt. Ahead, a red light glared overhead. Nervous twitches jerked his head in search of waiting enemies, his fingers white as they gripped the rifle tight. On one turn of his head, a view down an alley made him swing his eyes back for a double take.
At the edge of his vision, a splatter of unstable light yanked at his attention. Stopping full on in the opening his eyes strained under furrowed brows prying into the depths of the shadows painted across the brick walled tunnel. Then, caught by the corner of his sight, another fizzle of unstable matter flicked.
An overwhelming force tugged him forward. The curiosity too strong to ignore. Jàl left the relative security that came with hiding in the mass of bodies populating the sidewalks and crossed to the mouth of the alley.
Standing still in the entrance, a sense of familiarity teased his brain. The alley, with its real world appearance, and even the limited light cloaking the far end, all of this combined to create an unsettling feeling of Deja Vu.
Racked with indecision, Jàl wavered at the opening. He accepted the mission to locate the Globe and use the information gathered to create a gateway to the groundliers world and hopefully return with a cure, but the route spread before him demanded his attention. Why? Could these be the images from his dreams?
And if they were, why now? Why tempt him when…
… the ground shook violently. Did the buildings nearest just fluctuate? Probably not, he realized and clamped his eyes shut as his mind prepared to battle the inevitable journey into blackness that followed closely on the heels of these severe disruptions to his world. Seconds passed. Lifting one lid, he peeked out at the street. Everything stood remarkably peaceful.
In the eery quiet, a theory leaked from his subconscious. If this was indeed the spectre out of his dreams… then could the doorway possibly lie near. Did he need the Globe to locate the gateway to the lowest level of Earth? Maybe not.
Unable to resist the temptation any longer, Jàl twisted around and placed a tentative foot into the yawning mouth of the alley. Concern for Roake rallied to halt his progress. The thought of her, infected by the virus, unattended and vulnerable, the memory of her pale image as she lay stretched on the table back at the store, hammered against the curiosity to investigate the recesses of the brick tunnel. Still, one foot fell in front of the other.
Twenty steps into the alluring darkness, a sizzle of air and the fractured sparks of unstable molecules lit the air to Jàl’s side. A quick turn of his head revealed the building, or rather lack of building, perched ghostly on the corner as it fluctuated between dimensions of realities.
Through the foggy haze of displacement caused by the fluctuating matter of the structure, Jàl caught sight of a smattering of beastly figures. Grotesque silhouettes adorned with sagging brownish skin and bulbous eyes. The monsters pooled tight along the edge of the sidewalk. Their numbers increasing with each beating pulse of the building’s mass phasing in and out of reality. The creatures gazed into the depths of the foundation. Their heads cast down in a pose of mourning.
The panic in Jàl’s chest lifted after the initial sighting of the creatures. Fear and flight eased as his mind switched to studying the strange behaviour. Caught in mid step, he watched. The line of Verge stood still as statues, their growing numbers exposed each time the bulk of the building flitted from the current dimension. What about the fluctuations of the structure lured the monsters to this spot?
How long Jàl stood mesmerized by the strange habits of his enemies and the perpetual fluttering of a stories tall building, became irrelevant. Time suddenly refused to advance. The gathering of Verge spread across the street side of the fluctuating structure stretching several deep. Jàl wanted to retrace his steps and peer into the exposed depths of the foundation to see what held the monster’s interest but found his feet refused to obey.
A trance like state settled over the proceedings. The Verge numbers multiplied, exposed by the on again, off again veiling of the high-rise under siege. A repeating loop that grew more oblique with each rotation. This thought challenged Jàl’s mind. And to escape it…
A gust of cold wind from the closed end of the alley ruffled his hair. The drop in pressure broke Jàl from his trance. He spun around. A spectre of white danced in the shadows. A ghostly hand beckoned while haunting whispers rode the breeze closing the receptors of his mind to the strange goings on behind.
Jàl blinked. The fluttering of eyelids relieved the strain of burning eyes. The fingers of the breeze ransomed a release from the hypnotic transitions of the building’s stasis and the hold it held over him. With muscles freed, one step bled into the next.
At the feathered edge of transition blending daylight and shadows, the semblance of a face floated at eye level and mimicked Jàl’s searching advances. The illusive globe stood within a fingers reach, the slip of a spirit teased with a glimpse of the coveted prize. The indecipherable coding masking the globe’s features melted away revealing a face Jàl recognized.
A pair of appraising eyes peered back from the avatar he’d met but days ago, on an earlier visit to this dreamt up reality. Ree-al, the Daemon accosted while escaping from a previous level with an injured Roake, stood not more than a couple feet away. Jàl shook the confusion from his over-compensating brain.
“Am I missing something,” the words dribbled from his mouth. “If you are the globe, why did you not reveal this when we met the last time?”
“The information I am tasked with gathering, my job, is not complete. At that time I did not fully understand the ramifications the usage of such knowledge would bring. Now, I am fully versed.” The Wraith answered in a tone void of feeling and inflection.
“Understandable,” Jàl agreed then waved an arm over the walls and streets looming only a short distance from the alleys walls. The realistic renderings leading to the alley, now an almost complete imitation of what he believed the ancient world to resemble. “It seems you’ve completed your mission. The information I loosed the algorithms to retrieve… it waits out there.” He pointed back up the alley. “Your part of the programming is full filled.”
“Perhaps,” the avatar stated. “Unforeseen errors have complicated matters. A virus has invaded this dimension and until it is rectified I must remain relevant. You must also remain until I can determine a solution to the conundrum that now exists.”
“What? The Verge? They’re not a virus,” A snort of laughter borne of pent up tension spurted from Jàl’s lips at the preposterous assumption. He found it difficult to believe the Globe mistook the programmed annoyances as anything more than they were, an obstacle of training.
“You are wrong,” the Globe retorted. “Open your mind and I will show you the truth.”
A trickle of worry leaked into Jàl’s head worming past the wash of whispered promises from the Globe. The Globe was one with the mainframe and in the past, whenever his mind surfed the grid….
The pull to join the Globe increased. Jàl closed his eyes in an effort to block the Avatar’s control of his mind. Lights dazzled in the darkness behind his sealed eyelids. A film of sweat built on his forehead. The tickle of a drop being pulled downward by gravity lighted the minute nerve endings hidden below his skin. The itch, cast of the bead of perspiration, opened the sliver of worry wider.
Overlaid by the spell of ethereal whispers, an unsettling clamour echoed into the narrow opening leading from the street. Jàl shook off the Globe’s mystical power, willing his head to swing around toward the roar of sound. His heart rate increased. In-between the mist filled void left by the fluctuating structure, he caught snatches of movement as the Verge pulled free of the bind connecting them to the wonder of the open foundation. With each heart beat he saw the monsters shuffle toward the mouth of the alley and slowly march in his direction.
“The Verge are not the virus. They are not the threat of which I speak. Your journey ends here, now. Your way back may not follow your path forward.” A chill ran the length of Jàl’s spine at the Daemon’s icy warning. Precious time needed to decipher the Daemon’s words elapsed as the tentacles of the apparition’s hold on his mind severed. When he turned back, the Wraith had vanished. A multitude of questions crashed his mind for the meaning left behind by the Globe.
A thundering echo of shrill cries and guttural wails re-focused his thoughts. His reason for entering the alley came soaring back. The gamble of a doorway into the groundliers lair hiding within this brick tunnel surfaced more as a prayer than a curiosity. A quick last glance at the approaching horde of Verge sent Jàl scampering deeper into the shadows blanketing the bricked end of the alley.
Standing at the sealed end of the tunnel, he rubbed his hands across the coarse surface of brick and mortar with little expectation. Again, the darkness refused to reveal the doorway Jàl believed existed. He turned his head for a quick scan of the surroundings before raising his eyes to search the tops of the buildings. The light source lit the back of a building to his right. Jàl calmed his mind and reviewed his options.
The first was a no starter. He could summon a light to release the door but the actions would leave him at the mercy of the Verge. This time Roake was not around to rush him through the open gateway. Jàl’s foot began a slow tapping on the road. The rhythm increased in tempo as he surfed the recesses of his mind.
The growing cantations of the slow marching beasts caused the hairs on his body to stand. With each closing shriek, he felt the blood in his veins thicken. The beat of his heart thumped louder. Withdrawing inward, Jàl sensed the blood at his feet warm as it started its journey upward. The cells pulsed in rhythm with his heart, the two increasing in tempo as his mind fought off panic from the threat entering the mouth of the alley.
Jàl welcomed the adrenaline using the rising courage to push away the web of fear. He brought forward the strength required to recode the outcome. Calculations flooded his thoughts while his eyes drank in the myriad of details impeded in the walled tunnel. Tilting his head upward, he studied the angle of light blocked by the protruding buildings.
A stream of bits and bytes washed over his mind. Their intensity climbing along side his concern for Roake and his rage at being cornered by the Verge. The need for light and also the ability to move when the gateway appeared produced answers that ran parallel to one another. Then a third option scraped across the front of his brain. It was so obvious that he wondered why it never surfaced earlier.
The immense heat from a particle rifle tickled at the boundary of his conscious. The super heated air of the blasters beam burned deep into his lungs. Jàl squeezed his lids tighter in concentration. Drifting into the labyrinths of his mind, off-shoots of his thoughts sorted screens of passing codes and departmentalized his brain activity while he mentally slowed the march of time. His breathing eased, relaxed and faint.
An explosion of white light flared behind his sealed eyelids. A cleansing light called upon to erase the last images captured and trapped on the front of his brain moments before his eyes locked out the threatening world. Jàl imagined a blank screen, clean and scrubbed of all distractions from the darkest corners of his mind. The further he submersed, the quieter the cries of the Verge became until their threat dissolved with the digital environment.
When the screen was wiped clean, Jàl lay the seeds for a new foundation born of his imagination. The alley re-materialized with the compilation of a single edifice at first. Bricks and mortar stacked on one another, rising row upon row until they stretched the length and height of the old tunnel. The exception this time, the artificial light overhead caressed the crevices forced into shadow by the previous rendering.
On one wall, a cascade of light flushed the minute details from the brick façade. Slowly, inch by inch, the outline of a door tugged at the digital structure as the alley slowly re-bloomed. The opening worked free of his thoughts. The faux wood rearranging the previous configuration of the supporting materials.
While the alley reformed to the image Jàl held in his mind, the beasts, in their brownish sagging skin and large bulging eyes, awoke with the returning program. Along with the digital reproduction came the other entities of the games program. The building over Jàl’s left shoulder shuddered as it took its place on the waiting foundation. The structure shorter now by several stories. The result, the artificial light produced by the games conception shone brightly on the wall facing Jàl.
Cries of anger and…fright. The roar of the Verge rose to thundering volumes in the close confines of the walled alley, the blasts of anger carried a…softer, more subtle tone if such a thing was possible. The cries and shrieks assaulting Jàl’s ears sounded more like pleas of distress. Again, if digital characters had the ability to such feelings.
Curiosity forced Jàl around to face the oncoming squad of lumbering beasts. The awkward bodies swayed in a mismatched rhythm. The Verge downcast faces portraying a somber…pleading. To Jàl’s ears the cries begged for him to understand. The sprouts of a knowing smile lifted the edge of his lips. A clever trick by the Verge, he reasoned. Change tactics to confuse him while they regained the upper hand.
Jàl forced his mind back to the mission. The outline of the doorway stared back. Several moments hesitation passed until he imagined the warm breath of the monster on the back of his neck. A thoughtless gesture swung his hand to the back of his neck to swat away the imagined warmth while the rest of his brain worked to calm his breathing but yet allow him the courage to place a hand forward and test the door knob.
A flash of light burst past his head and scorched the bricks. The return to reality jumped his nerves. Jàl’s hand shot forward and twisted. The knob moved easily. The door swung inwards. A brief glimpse of the other side overwhelmed his senses. One step brought him close to the opening. The second step moved him across the dimension. Oddly, he remembered hearing the wooden door slam shut before a wash of liquid light stole his conciousness.
The bulky heads of the monsters floated above. Jàl’s mind screamed move, but his body lay still, locked in a horizontal position, his arms pinned, his legs immobile. Details rushed unobstructed into his head assaulting his senses as the fog covering his eyes cleared.
The room glowed bright. A brightness he’d never witnessed before. Harsh but yet unyielding. And the monsters. A quick flick of his eyes revealed the awkward shells of the Verge crowed close. Too close. The beasts bulbous snouts bent low in his direction and their bulging eyes pinning him to who knew what.
An extra beat of his heart began his heart rate escalating. A film of sweat coated his skin. The beads of water from the warmth in the room…or from fear. Jàl analyses the feelings racing through his veins. Maybe not so much fear as an innate curiosity.
The lumbering beasts stood placidly along side the bench he lay secured. Not a word or yet…a shriek, broke the silence, the guttural screams known of the Verge as a usual means of communication. Could he not summon the grid from such a position, the thought rolled amongst the myriad of theories his mind rallied up to normalize his predicament.
The constraints clamping his head refused to ease. His face blushing red from exertion but failed to connect with the programs mainframe.
“Clear the room.” The soft spoken words drove like a hammer into Jàl’s busy mind. I can understand the Verge, he thought. Since when or why not before? The words wrenched his world of reasoning askew. The whole game and not a clue as to the monsters way of reasoning and now…
The sagging brownish skinned beasts pulled from his sight while another entered into his limited vision. The eyes of the monster, an opaque black as they stared down into his face. A flinch of fear shivered through his curiosity as the beast raised its hands and gripped its bulky head. Then the unexpected. The monster’s transformation swooned in reverse. Instead of a human form evolving into the crumpled skinned beast, the bulky head lifted, revealing…
“You gave us quite the fright,” the beast lowered one hand in a friendly fashion. “How do you feel?”
“I..I…” Jàl stuttered. His eyes drank in the altered actions of the beast, his mind numbed, taken aback by the words and manner of his nemesis.
“Conners Lee,” the monster continued speaking. “When the wall glowed and you came through, we knew little of what to expect. The good news is you’re cleared. No known contagions.” The beast continued removing its outer skin.
His head held tight by constraints, Jàl shifted his eyes to the side to watch the beasts movements. “I…you…speak…in English?” The question tripped across his lips.
“Yes, as do you, it appears.” The beast replied.
“Where are we? What level? Well, this is new.” Jàl jabbered. His mind raced to update and rationalize his thought process. The threat by the Globe, the scrubbing of the digital alley and the reveal of the doorway on the rebuild. He sighed. He truly believed the doorway to the groundliers lay within his grasp…but instead, some perverted version of a new level.
Disappointment sapped his hope. Poor Roake, his mind touched upon “What do we do now? Where does this go?” The muscles in his neck grew taut and his arms tugged against the table straps holding him prone. Relaxing, he tore his eyes away from the monster and shifted them to capture the interior of the bright room. The silence was interrupted when he realized the monster spoke a name.
“How is it you are called by name? You are but a digital reproduction, a figment of my programming.” Jàl returned his gaze to the exposed face of his captor. Under the glaring lights, the beasts feature were awash with reality. How, what…Jàl closed his eyes and his mind scrubbed the latest images imprinted on his brain before he slowly peeled open his eyelids. The monster remained and the room sat bathed in the same harsh lighting.
Conners Lee scrubbed the stubble on his chin. “What game? What exactly do you believe happened?”
“The game. My Mixed-Reality dimension. You must know, you’re a part of it.” Then Jàl fell silent. He was trying to communicate with a pre-programmed entity. Did the Verge disrupt his escape with their blasters? Was he now seriously injured and his mind brought him to this place as a form of safety?
Then a second more abrupt thought seized his thoughts. Was this the Globe’s way of dealing with him. Did she not say that his journey ended in the alley? Could she be in his mind at this time dishing out her own version of reality to keep him off balance?
Jàl squeezed his lids shut once more. He released all stray thoughts and freed his mind to soar and connect with the main-frame. Nothing. Nervous shivers ran the length of his body as he tried harder. Finally exhausted, he blinked open his eyes. The Verge remained posted as before.
“Is this the Globe’s doing?” he asked, near defeat.
“You don’t make a lot of sense, buddy.” The monster replied.
“How is it you can remove your head?” Jàl wondered through his building trepidation.
“What. This?” The monster lifted the bulky covering with the bulging eyes and flat, protruding snout. “This is simply a part of my suit. For the past few days your body has been fighting off a very deadly strain of disease. That, I am happy to report, is no longer the case. The suit is no longer needed. Looks like you’ll be fine.”
“Seriously, Verge, what level is this. How advanced has the program evolved? Oh,” as an after thought, Jàl tugged again at his restraints. “If everything is as you say, why am I held prisoner?”
“What exactly do you recall?” The monster quizzed.
Jàl stared at the Verge, “Alright I’ll play along. The alley where you attacked. I rebuilt it and found the door to…” Jàl pictured in his mind the appearance of the doorway in the brick wall and his hand pulling the door open, then the powerful light.
“I made it through, didn’t I? This is the Groundlier’s lair?”
The monster scrunched its face. “We like to call it Earth or home or…well, I’m sure you get it. What door did you make it through? You burst through a wall in an obscure alley. Lucky too, the disease had ravaged your system. Much longer and I think we would not be having this conversation.”
Fear and doubt slipped from Jàl’s body. “How long have I been like this?”
“Since Monday at least. And the restraints. They were for your safety. The disease, it had you in its grasp. At first, we didn’t think you’d make it. For endless hours you tossed so violently that we feared you’d breathed your last, but here you are.”
"Where I was found…can you tell me?”
The monster raised a finger to his lips then nodded toward a camera in the back corner of the room with a tilt of his head. “I think delirium may have gotten the better of you, friend. There is no game or secret doorway. No, probably just the hangover of a deadly virus. Don’t you worry, all will be fine now.”
The monster bent low. Busy fingers loosening the straps tightly secured to Jàl’s arms and legs. For the first time, Jàl noticed the monster’s hands. Fingers of flesh, long and slender not the stubby appendages he’d associated with the Verge of earlier. Maybe, he thought…
“Where are we? You aren’t…” he let the sentence hang as the monster swept around the table. The last of the restrictions holding him to the table loosened and Jàl stretched his neck. A quick glance snuck back up at the Verge. Conners Lee stepped next to a metal door motioning Jàl to follow.
Jàl lost track of direction in the pairs movements throughout the streets. All the twists and turns of the monster rushing in the lead kept him too busy to stop and snap images of landmarks for a return trip if needed. At last the pair bust out a side door and stepped into a side alley.
Towering brick walls created a tunnel effect and the lack of sunlight let a chill in the air. Jàl froze as he took in the familiarity. A twitch of his nostrils detected a difference in the air. The game’s environment was closed, stale. Now, the air seemed fuller, alive almost. Nothing he’d ever…yet he had. The memory surfaced from some where deep within his archived memory banks.
From the corner of his eye flashes of the monster transforming. The wrinkled brownish skin peeled away or more accurately, fell away. The Verge, calling himself Conners Lee, shuffled his feet, one at a time and left the empty shell fall to the dusty dirt covered road. Jàl stared. His curiosity refused to be contained.
“Excuse me.” He blurted. The Verge raised a finger silencing his request.
“Soon,” Conners Lee said and stepped quickly away from the door and hurried toward the sidewalk.
Breaching the corner of the brick building, Jàl once again froze. Manchester street, his Manchester street, the very same, lay spread out in front of him.
Exhaust coughing automobiles snorted along the wide street. Their mechanical bodies separated from where he and the monster stood by only the width of the sidewalk. The grey smoke hovering over the street and adding a sting to the air Jàl breathed in. Things are different, his brain sent short nudges of warnings throughout his system.
Before Jàl had time to process the situation, his mind strayed in a new direction. Bodies swam into his vision. A smattering of… ‘human forms’ walked about their business. Instinctively, Jàl’s hand fell to his side. Of course the blaster was no longer there. He’d just been released from captivity. A nervous search of the game piece’s faces failed to reveal the yellow tinged eyes of the disguised Verge.
“This way,” Jàl felt a hand tug at his arm. Conners Lee sprang into the moving cluster of a small crowd. Jàl followed, reluctant but more intrigued then worried. What happened to make things change. Again his thoughts returned to the Globe’s warning. Is she in my head and leading forward to a trap of no return, he wondered.
A pain in his lungs brought all worries to a halt. Jàl collapsed to his knees. The air heavy and harsh. It clung to the roof of his mouth and clogged his nostrils. Feeble wisps of the air bled through his constricted airway scratching the lining of his throat and hurt his lungs. Jàl’s mouth pulsed, his teeth ground as he tried to squash the air and drag small chunks of it deep to ease the pressure squeezing his starving lungs.
“You alright pal,” Conners Lee rushed to his side. “You don’t look so well.”
Jàl lifted a finger delaying an answer while he sucked in the heavy air. “Altitude.” He mumbled. “Are we really…” Jàl ran his hand over the porous surface of the sidewalk then swivelled his head slowly, his eyes drinking in the details of the game pieces and then the buildings. All the while, the air so close to the ground, almost too thick for lungs long acclimated to breathing the wispy, thin sustaining atmosphere miles above Earths surface, switched the bodies senses to survival mode trying to draw one more breath of life.
The only place he could image that that would happen…a small smile lifted the edges of his mouth. Maybe he really did find a passageway to the Groundliers lair. For one, the air so thick at this altitude that besides feeling he had to chew before he breathed, the heavier molecules explained the harsh burning as his lungs struggled to fill.
“One second,” Jàl stalled further. A final deep breath and the oxygen in his bloodstream caught up with his racing heart. Standing, he extended an arm.
“Gad to meet you, Conners Lee.” He said. The smile on his face growing with relief on two fronts. He did it. He matched the game and found a portal. The smile continued as he thought of Roake and how he would return with a cure.
“Lead the way.” He conceded, his hand flourishing royally across his body, yielding to Lee’s instructions.
Darkness blotted out the sky by the time the two turned into a final alley. Conners Lee walked in silence. Jàl following blindly on the man’s heels. Lee walked half the length of the brick tunnel then stopped and faced a wall. Jàl watched the silhouette of the Groundlier move among the darker shadows erasing the details of the surrounding space.
Strained eyes followed the traces of a hand slide over the rough brick façade. Seconds of silence surrendered as an audible click sounded a half microsecond before a grimy lightbulb burned its glow against the night reclaiming a small portion of the immediate area. The scant ray of yellow revealed a doorway flushed from the shadows.
A nervous look about to see if any followed and Lee swung the door open and motioned Jàl inside.
“Home as it is,” he said following close on Jàl’s heels. The door snicked closed, the room sat quiet and still before a string of bare bulbs strung high in the ceiling chased away the darkness, adding life to a small room. Benches and shelves cluttered the floor leaving thin paths snaking across the floor. Reams of paper lay like a film of dust over every available space. Crammed in a corner, a tall chalk board stood sentinel, the writing area swarmed with calculations.
Jàl stood only feet inside the room. His eyes busy switching to and fro taking in every detail. Is this how people live on the lowest levels of Earth, he wondered. How, how was it possible to maintain any train of reasoning surrounded by this sea of untidiness?
“Over here.” A voice called from somewhere deep in the mess. Jàl left his trance and squinted into the chaos tracking Conners Lee. A hand waved from behind a cabinet stacked high with…books. Paper books no less, Jàl was quick to notice. Picking a path that seemed to meander in the right direction, he walked toward his new friend.
“Why are we here?” Jàl called above the towers of books and papers. “Is this where you work?”
“Oh, goodness no,” Conners Lee replied. “Of course not. This is my home. My lab is a complete disaster. You should see it. It is crammed to the rafters with my studies.”
Jàl looked about as he inched through the thin path toward the back of the room. Lee’s word causing a new layer of worry.
“Okay then. Why are we here?” Jàl asked the question again, now that the pair were no longer racing down busy sidewalks and blind alley ways. The words dribbled from his lips as he stepped to the edge of the thin path. His next step carried him away from the clusters of shelves and papers to an open space at the far side of the building. Comfortable looking furniture spread across a colourful rug surrounded by antique viewing equipment separated this space from the stacks and closeness of the front of the room.
Conners Lee stood next to a counter with a sink and what Jàl surmised was an open fridge. The small square steel box emitted a light from its interior.
“You thirsty?” Lee held up a tin can in his hand. Jàl shrugged away the answer. His eyes busy adjusting to the sudden change in the rooms appearance.
“Yeah…I…is it good?” He finally answered pointing to Lee’s hand. The man tossed the container in Jàl’s direction. Fumbling the catch, he twisted it in his hand studying the odd cylindrical tube. Thin metal sealed the ends of the can. With a touch of pause, Jàl slipped his finger nail under a thin tab and pulled. A release of air and bubbles squeezed from the opening. Curious, he lifted the liquid to his nose. Sweet smelling bubbles of air foamed. Jàl’s eyes searched across the short space to find Conners Lee. The man nodded toward the open can urging his consent.
A taste on the tongue then a dribble ran down Jàl’s throat. The liquid sparked the sensors at the back of his throat as the sirupy fluid raced to his stomach. The second swig was bigger. The texture, the bubbles similar to the contraband sodas of his Sky City.
“So. Where do we start.” Jàl said after emptying the remainder of the can. “This is the Groundliers world, is it not?”
Conners Lee returned Jàl’s stern look.
“We refer to it as Earth, but, sure, can call it whatever you like, I suppose.”
A wide smile scooted across Jàl’s face. Bringing his brief period of joy under control the neurones in his brain sparked in all directions with the questions he wanted to ask. Instead, a simple statement left his lips.
“I knew it was possible. I made it.”
Conners Lee’s features twisted in a confused lilt. “Why wouldn’t you?” A lift of the shoulders followed the remark. Noting the blank look on Jàl’s face, Lee added. “You don’t remember, do you?”
“What,” the single word shot from Jàl’s mouth, “Remember what?”
Conners Lee swept his arm to include the stacks and shelves of papers the two had walked through only moments earlier.
“One day, many years ago, we stood in this very place. All my notes, all my research, you are the cause of this.”
Jàl’s mind spun at the impact of Conners words.
“If that’s true, why don’t I remember. Something that spectacular would surely be memorable.”
“The experiment you talked about. The one in, what did you call it…” Conners Lee fell silent searching his memory, “Mixed- Dimensions or something along those lines.”
“Mixed-Reality,” Jàl quickly corrected.
“Yes, yes,” Conners Lee continued his line of thinking. “You theorized the games main-frame might cause memory blips whenever it re-set. How has the game progressed over the years? Can you now interface with the main-frame? You had hoped to make the adjustments. How intertwined have you and the program grown?”
Jàl’s hand snuck up to the bump at the base of his skull feeling for the hard body of the in-plant. How many times over the course of his experiment had he replaced the tiny biotic circuit to gain better control over the games advancing algorithms. Too many to recall, he admitted to himself.
“Things have changed from the beginning,” he answered still unable to accept that he’d previously accessed the portal to the Groundliers level.
“You will have to fill me in then?” Jàl begged Conners Lee. “How did I first arrive? And, were you there when I crossed the portal?” A thousand questions swirled in Jàl’s teeming mind. Before his host had the chance to begin divulging information, a horrific vibration rocked the very floor the two stood.
Blood drained from Jàl’s face. He never thought the quakes were anywhere other then the sky city.“What was that?” He hoped for a different answer then the one already hammering at his brain.
“I’ve something to show you.” Conners Lee admitted. “Something that maybe only you can make sense of.”
Jàl changed into the clothes Lee set out for his disguise, flipped up the cotton hood on the sweater as advised and followed the Groundlier back out into the alley. Lee stopped at the corner of the building and gazed out onto the exposed sidewalk. For several seconds he watched the crowds pass in under the flickering street lights before signalling Jàl to follow.
The pair mingled with the small groups of human forms moving about, stopping and waiting when they came to the end of the sidewalk and faced a red light. On green, the two walked on, blending with different clusters as they made their way away from the safety of the room hidden in the alley.
A grand case of deja-vu stopped Jàl in mid stride. A half block ahead and diagonally across the next corner stood the brick bank building from his program. The similarity uncanny. Jàl felt a bump in his back as the flow of foot traffic became interrupted by his sudden stop.
“What?” Conners Lee stepped to his side. The Groundlier swung his head around for unforeseen dangers.
“The building,” Jàl started. “The algorithms set about creating the game.” His words fell silent as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk and cast his eyes about. Wonder sparked his senses leaving him mobile while he gawked at the familiar streetscape. One he’d recognize anywhere, even in the gathering darkness under rows of yellow burning bulbs. “These streets are the layout of the Mixed-Reality dimension, the foundation my game is built on. Incredible.”
“We must hurry,” Jàl felt a tug on his arm at Conners’ words. “We can’t let anyone see you.”
Suddenly, a loud cry filled the air. The all too familiar whines and shrieks of the Verge. Jàl’ looked about puzzled then toward Conners Lee for an explanation.
“Warning alarms,” The look on the Groundliers face was grave. “The collapse of another building.” The Groundlier searched in turn for the alarms origin.
“This way,” Conners Lee urged.
The pair jogged down the sidewalk. Shortly past the bank building, an early evening crowd began clustering. Following Conners Lee, Jàl busted past the ranks of onlookers and froze. Lined on the sidewalk, a row of Verge stood at the edge of a crumbled building. The structure little more than a ring of concrete left to mark the building’s footprint.
Jàl pulled back for a place to hide. Glancing at Conners Lee’s face, he caught the confusion shaping the Groundlier’s expression.
“What is the matter?” Lee glanced from Jàl back toward the brownish, hooded figures.
“The Verge. They’re real.”
“Verge. What the hell are Verge?”
Jàl lifted his arm, his finger pointing to the line of monsters staring into the open excavation. The muscles forming contorting Conners Lee’s face relaxed.
“I’m not certain what you mean by Verge, but those people are are emergency workers, first responders. Their job is to secure and cordon off the area for safety plus they’ll search for survivors trapped when the building collapsed,” the last three words faded from Lee’s mouth. “The rumble we felt. This must be where it originated. This office tower has shown signs of deterioration. Over the last few days, the pace has increased but no one thought,” Lee spun back to gaze over the open pit.
“This is not the only one.” He paused and gulped the dusty air. "Over the past several years, a series of structures have been…I don’t know…dissolved, I guess. The materials constructing the building…have slowly faded over time. The greatest minds of our city are left dumb founded. No one can explain exactly how this happens.”
Forgetting about being discreet, Conners Lee pulled Jàl into the midst of the Verge protecting the open foundation. “When the process is finished, there will be very little debris remaining. It’s like… the structure is sucked from our reality.” The Groundlier stopped and noisily sucked another disturbed breath into his heaving lungs. “Do you understand what I’m saying? Does this make any sense to you? What about from where you come from. Are the occurrences the same?”
“When did this happened? Do you recall? The timing is very important.” Jàl emphasized. His worry of the brownish skinned Verge and their bulbous eyes and protruding snouts all but ignored. His curiosity piqued by the odd disappearance of the earth anchored buildings. A curiosity that soon sent a shiver of fear running the length of his spine. Did he not witness the same…he stepped back of the crowd of Verge and studied the street. The nearest corner of the building in question led into an brick walled alley. One he was certain he’d visited before.
Holy shit. The words set alarm bells clattering in his head. This chunk of streetscape, the alley and corner he stood, all matched the images in his mind of the building he witnessed the Verge moping over moments before he stepped through the hidden gateway to this level.
How could that be possible? The Mixed-Reality program merely rendered facsimiles of the ancient buildings. Or did it? How could he be certain, he found himself wondering. The transference of materials over dimensions. Is that even such a thing and if it was, could his program be stealing the buildings from the Groundliers to reproduce his dimension and thus be the cause the aftershocks.
Another holy shit rumbled under his breath as reality reached down and slapped him. Small clouds of dust floated over the empty hole. The bits of flotsam, the only particles remaining of the towering building that occupied the empty space short moments before. Still, were these the same aftershocks that rattled his Cloud City? His home rested miles above all the problems of the Groundliers and hundreds of stories above even the barbaric middle class.
Jàl backed a few steps from the edge of the foundation and tilted his head skyward. The dark and dust mixed with a thin haze and floated high above the street erasing the top of the surrounding buildings. Squinting, he focused on the wall of the nearest structure and ran his eyes up the length of the exterior. The haze played tricks with his vision until the focus of his sight broke through the wisps of altering air.
From one building to the next he peered to the top of the structures. Well, not really the tops because all the buildings continued unabated until he could not longer see the edges of each structure. The buildings were all intertwined. The ones on the ground, support columns for those built above.
If he could follow these structures as they travelled miles into the air, he imagined that he’d eventually come upon the bottom of the Cloud City. Each time a building on the bottom suffered a similar fate as the one he stood beside, the aftershocks climbed the length of the towering structures and shook the massive city on all three levels, in theory anyways, he admitted. Nd if his program kept snatching the supporting foundations, what then?
But he needed more information. A moment of lucidity crowded Jàl’s brain. Good, he thought, this may well explain the quakes that shook his city. What did any of this have to do with the virus, became the second question he put to himself? In the back of his mind some lost thought intertwined the two problems.
In his haste to capture a glimpse of the uppermost part of the structures, gravity tugged at the cloth hood pulled tight over his hair. The material slipped away. Reams of harsh light from ancient light posts lit his head and exposed his face.
One of the brownish skinned Verge standing nearby noticed and pointed in his direction. Warning shouts lifted through the layer of dust hovering above the sidewalk. With a target in sight, the creatures left their stations and moved as one.
“This way,” Conners Lee yanked Jàl out of his ruminations.
Faces of curious human forms turned in Jàl’s direction as he raced past on the sidewalk. His quick strides matching those of the Groundlier’s lead. Store fronts, self enclosed, shaded entrances, stood silently a few feet from the edge of the sidewalk as the pair rushed by. The feeling familiar. For a second Jàl’s mind slipped back to when he and Roake employed the same actions escaping the Verge of his made up reality.
The same irritating whooping cry rang into the night and echoed over the strange glow of the overhead lights. Did he really escape to the Groundlier’s domain? The chase, the sounds all felt the same. The feelings too close to realize a difference. Could the Globe be disguised as the man called Conners Lee?
But then, why? To trick him into believing, but for what purpose? Then again, why not Jàl thought as he ran on the heels of the fleeing Groundlier, but the why clung to the fringes of his thoughts. For what purpose would the artificial intelligence part of his game sabotage the rest of the project? What was he missing?
“Quick. Over here,” the call shattered the conflicting thoughts pressing on Jàl’s mind. Focus swam back in front of his eyes. The Groundlier leapt off the sidewalk with two quick steps and pushed inside the darkened interior of a deserted store.
“Follow me,” Jàl heard the words as he twisted around crammed aisles. A dim bulb beckoned from the direction the voice headed.
“Whoa,” Jàl exclaimed, barely missing a collision with a stack of boxes laying in his path. The move deflected his body into a metal shelf. Round tin cans shuddered. Out of instinct, Jàl caught a can as it dislodged. A cursory glance at the label picture told of a particular sliced fruit contained inside. Jàl stared at the paper label. Can’t be, he muttered, remembering a familiar scene where he and Roake dashed through a store on an escape run from the Verge.
Shaking free of the memory, he looked about brushing aside a rising panic. In the faint light and close quarters he lost all sight of Conners Lee. Taking a breath, he stretched on his toes. The top of a head scooted past a shelve a couple aisles over. The silhouette close to a glowing red overhead sign.
Relief flooded over Jàl as he turned the last row of shelves and Conners Lee stood panting beside a door at the side of the room.
“Through here and we should be clear of them,” the Groundlier gasped pulling the door inward. More darkness greeted the pair. A inky dark void of even the poorest of light.
“To your left,” Lee instructed, “step left and you’ll feel the bricks of the wall. Keep your hand on the wall and walk straight ahead. We’re in a short back alley. Move carefully, but the way should be clear.”
Jàl did as told. A cautious side step and an outstretched hand welcomed the feel of the coarse brick wall. Shuffling his feet, he swung his right hand in front to detect unexpected obstacles. With his eyes pried wide open, the dark erased any sense of sight.
One careful footstep after the other. Seconds passed in near silence. A brushed snick sounded loud in the dark a heartbeat before a single bulb flared over a hidden doorway. A step away from bumping into Conners Lee, Jàl’s ears detected another more ominous sound. The opening of the door leading into the alley from the stores interior. A rushed turn of his head caught the sight of a brownish sleeve reaching into the new flow of light entering the dark space. The dull bulb above his head extinguished leaving the open doorway guiding the way from the alley. A rough hand grabbed the front of his jacket. Jàl stumbled forward as Conners Lee yanked him bodily through the doorway.
"The buggers are getting better. I’ll need to employ a different route next time.” The Groundlier swore as he snaked a route once more past stocked shelves. The run through the store interior ended at the doorway leading back to the street side of the building. Conners Lee searched outside the glass before opening the door and stepping onto the sidewalk.
“Act natural,” he whispered. Jàl tugged the hood of his cotton jacket over his head and shoved his hands into his pockets following along. The two moved in the opposite direction of the destroyed building and the gathering of first responders.
Despite the thick, heavy air, Jàl found the evening to his liking. The smells, unfamiliar yet welcoming. The human forms laughed and smiled as he passed them. Even the harsh, artificial light fighting off the darkness had a warm, easy feeling to it. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined the Groundliers world as anything but a sick, poisoned atmosphere with a population bereft of intellect.
A new smell twitched his nostrils. A man stood beside a wheeled cart. Steam use into the evening air.
“Those are hotdogs,” Conners Lee noticed Jàl quizzical look and pointed to the cart. “Meat, or at least bits go meat. You never had a hotdog?” The Groundlier shook his head at Jàl’s hesitation.
“Two dogs, Mac,” Conners Lee held two fingers in the air as he spoke to the vender. Jàl scrutinized the warm soft shell and the brown tube. “Ketchup, mustard.” Lee’s voice interrupted. Jàl turned to see the man squeezing coloured paste onto the object.
“Try this,” Lee insisted squeezing amounts of yellow and red paste onto Jàl’s dog. “Go ahead. It won’t kill you. Well not the one alone, maybe after a few years but you should be alright.”
Puzzled, Jàl regarded the “hotdog” in his hand suspiciously. “Why would I think it’ll kill me. What kind of games do you people play with your…foods?” He asked holding the bun away from his body.
“Kidding. It’s food. Eat it. Like this.” Lee lifted the hotdog to his mouth an clamped his teeth tight tearing a large portion off. Jàl watched the man chew then with a few seconds trepidation, he attacked the food the same way. Surprised at the texture and the pop of flavour, he made short work of the remainder.
“One more,” he flashed the vendor a solitary finger like Lee had done previously.
“Alright. Let me get this straight,” Conners Lee paced back across the floor. “Years back your city in the clouds saw its first taste of the flu. How all of a sudden did the virus arrive? When did this happen? Before of after you visited our level”
“Obviously, I can’t say because I don’t remember an earlier visit.” Jàl repeated his answer. The hairs on his arms stood with the Groundlier’s questioning of the timeline for the virus. If he had visited the lowest level before….was he responsible for the outbreak…could he have unknowingly carried the disease back to his home?
“I’ve got something you need to see,” Conners Lee’s words snuffed the anxiety building in his mind. Jàl watched the Groundlier leave the relative sanctum of furniture for the labyrinth of shelves and boxes that constituted the man’s work space. When Jàl lost track of his host, his thoughts switching back to Roake and how he imagined her suffering alone, fevered and helpless in a digital world of his making. A cure and a ticket home pressed his actions, the possibilities of him being the cause of all the Cloud City’s troubles would have to wait.
Footsteps out of the jungle of research material brought Conners Lee back into the small living area. “I think this is the recording,” he talked across his shoulder as he squatted beside a bank of electronic equipment.
Conners Lee stood and backed out of Jàl’s line of sight with the ancient video screen. A blurry picture swam into focus revealing a younger, visibly upset version of the Cloud City’s leading intellect.
“Not certain what you want me to do?” A tinny recording of Jàl’s voice projected from the video device.
“Well, first, tell me your name, where you claim you’re from and how you arrived here.”
"I…I don’t…am I in trouble?”
“No. Well, not from me. There are some government men who I imagine would like nothing better then to interrogate you but I think we’ll be safe here. So go on and tell your story. I want a record of this.” A much younger Conners Lee stepped into the video frame adjusting a small microphone placed in front of Jàl.
On screen Jàl watched himself clear his throat before responding to Lee’s instructions.
“My name is Jàl Condor. I,” a huge breath slowed a racing heart and paused the tale, “am a resident of the Cloud City. My home sits high above where I presume…we are now.”
“Do you mean your city floats in space?”
“Floats in space. No.” Young Jàl’s voice sarcastically replied. “Built above your city is the home of the middle class. Do you not know of this?” A visibly stressed Jàl cocked his head as he stared into the camera. “My home exists hundreds of stories above your earth anchored city. Have you never wondered why your world only rises into the sky so far?”
“A safety shield built long before my time restricts our upward travel. A type of bio-shield protects us against threats entering our atmosphere. That’s why. Everyone knows that,” The younger Conners Lee haughtily replied.
The video captured Jàl shaking his head in disbelieve. “That’s quite a story. Let me tell you what holds your people back. This bio-shield. It as designed to keep you Groundliers in your place. Many millennial ago, my ancestors built the shield to shelter the newly rising Upper Class from intrusions by barbarians.” A finger pointed at the video version of Conners Lee. “Your people.
But even that is ancient history. Civilization surpassed the scourge that became of the Middle Class a few lifetimes ago. Now we tower high above earth and all its…its impediments. Free of the savagery and pettiness and diseases of the lower classes and your awful ways.”
The two men sat silent. Conners Lee absorbing Jàl’s discretion of a world he thought he knew while the video played and Jàl sat mesmerized by the younger version of him on the video and the break through he made so long ago, all the time wishing for the memories that his brain lacked, to return.
“When I first arrived. Were you the one who found me…” Jàl broke the silence.
“No. I was in University the first time you appeared. How we met was quite out of the ordinary. When you were found out, the authorities locked you in a hospital. One for crazy people. The stories you told, well, who in their right mind could believe something like that.”
“And this was how long ago?”
“Quite some time now. I haven’t been in school for many years and,” Conners Lee swung his hand to emphasis the stacks of papers and boxes, “I’ve done my own research into dimension bending. So maybe eight or ten years.”
Jàl fidgeted in his seat. Damn, the The time line seemed feasible. Some time around then the first signs of the virus were discovered. Why couldn’t he remember? Settling back in his chair he motioned Conners Lee to continue.
“I was a student. The news was filled with your story. The more I watched, the more I became enthralled until, I don’t know what, a feeling or some special power put us together. We hatched a plan for your escape and then shortly afterward you summoned…what did you call it…a horizon or gateway back to your digital world. You stepped through a doorway and that was the last anyone saw or heard of you.
Your short time here became the thesis for my final school papers. You became famous like Bigfoot or that sea serpent others have been searching for, for forever. I switched up my studies and learned advanced computer physics. I wanted to find out what happened to you. And now, bang, here you are.”
“And, this time. How did you know where to find me?”
“Easy,” Lee explained. “I once lead the division tasked with unravelling the mystery of our disappearing buildings. This area,” Conners Lee stood and grabbed a city map, “is where all the action is. I still had friends in the bureau. Your appearance was reported to me the instance you walked through the wall. The fact that I stole you from the study chamber at the hospital. Well. That will be a problem that I’ll have to deal with later.”
“This is your home. Are the others not aware where you live? And don’t they also want what we want?”
Conners Lee shrugged. His hand waffled in mid air. “ This is one of my places. So, yes and no. People in this city are scared. The sudden appearance of you and the area you made your entrance. The higher ups probably can’t wait to get their claws into you and make you answer for the lives and destruction caused. So we’ll hide. Eventually we will be discovered but for now we should be safe.”
Conners Lee set down the map and switched the video off before returning to his chair across from Jàl. “But this is getting us nowhere. The only thing I care about is putting an end to the collapse of our city. So, needless to say, I first must understand how your program is able to disrupt the integrity of the structures in this world and then, as you’ve told me, reconstruct them in your digital world. If, that is in fact what we are dealing with.”
A long sigh left Conners Lee's lips. “Things are bad and getting worse. I mean, how many more foundation buildings can we afford to lose before the whole city comes tumbling down around itself?”
“I need to make certain that my program is building a digital world at the expense of your structures?” Jàl questioned as his mood darkened. The words sounded hollow even to his ears. How could he refute the last scenes of the digital streets before he jumped realities. The mirror effect of the Verge in his world and the first responders in this reality all gathered around the exact same location. In both, the building had fluctuated in and out of being.
How though, he wracked his brain. The algorithms were fashioned to gather information and create a replica layout to provide a map, a means of passage from the Cloud City to the lowest level of earth. In a matter of speaking, a relatively far fetched but mundane approach in his desperate search for an antidote to end the deadly virus inflicting the Cloud City, but now, the damn thing only added to the city’s problems.
The melding of the different dimensions amounted to an enormous task to be demystified and all this distracted from the fear pressing at the back of his spine.
Jàl sank in his chair. His mind a tightly wound ball of worry about Roake as she lay in the digital world, helpless. A dimensional game, now thought to be devouring the real world and all the while she lay incapacitated by the virus. Grief coupled with guilt cramped his conscious. How was she, he wondered? Could she hang on?
Shaking loose of the dreadful thoughts, Jàl turned back to the plastic keyboards resting under his hands. How long would would it take to re-program these ancient artifacts to accept the implant at the base of his skull. If that was even possible.
The second of his problems, a type of biological container that could cross the gateway to the digital world and carry the antibiotics to save Roake and thus the Cloud City, he left with Conners Lee along with a list of components he’d need to infiltrate the main frame of the digital reality.
Sunlight streamed into a window high in the hidden lab of the Groundlier. Jàl sat bent over the rude plastic components that allowed his access to the ancient computing system. Hours earlier, Conners Lee returned with a list of possible substitutes of the needed equipment Jàl requested. The two spent a good part of the night retrofitting and increasing the abilities of the ancient and technologically challenged system.
A stream of green dashes and dots flowed from screen to screen as Jàl typed. His fingers, now adjusted to the raised plastic letters and numbers of the keyboard, typed with a single purpose. The lines of code crossing the grouping of L.E.D. screens merged to form a picture in his mind.
“At last,” Jàl shouted. The rapid flashes of coding slowed, then began to swirl.
Conners Lee stood off Jàl’s shoulder. A computer savant himself, he felt lost as he tried to follow the visitor from the digital world, or…Lee revised his thinking, a different version of earth. No. Both statements formed wrong answers. If Jàl Condor was to be believed, Lee was hosting a fellow human from a city miles above the one he presently stood. The possibility, though, would have to wait to be confirmed. A search for the foreigners home would have to wait until his own home was no longer in danger.
“Damn,” the shouted curse focused Lee back to their present problem.
“What’s wrong,” Lee asked.
“It’s as I feared,” Jàl pointed to the slashes of coding disappearing from the monitors as if a simple glance at the disappearing green lines of code explained everything.
“What? What am I looking at. Maybe I can help?” Lee offered.
“When I started this program,” Jàl lounged back in his chair and rubbed the tiredness from his eyes. “I created a program to accumulate and sort and piece together the information retrieved by the algorithms. I needed somewhere to contain the useful bits while the replicated city was being laid out. A Daemon, a computer…”
“I know what a Daemon is,” Lee cut into Jàl’s narrative. “A multitasking system that runs as a background process free of direct manipulation.”
“Thank you,” Jàl sarcastically replied. “My I continue.”
“The floor is yours,” Conners Lee ruffled at the rebuke.
“A few days ago, my friend and…,” Jàl paused thinking of Roake, “and colleague reentered the Mixed-Reality world because my lab computers were locked out of the system. The Daemon, I believe is responsible. I never got around to solving the problem. Roake became ill and I changed my priorities.
Unfortunately, I’ve come upon the same problem, again. My actions are locked out. I finally convinced your system to accept my transplant,” he said pointing to the scar on the side of his neck, “but after a short test run, the door was slammed shut. It seems that the only way to move forward is for me to reenter the digital world. There I can manually reboot the grid. Without control our efforts will be useless.”
“What about your memories? What if your mind is wiped?”
An eyebrow raised and Jàl’s cheek twitched as the question increased the complexity of his plan. “I guess we’d better find a way around that then, plus, I’ll need you to take back to the exact spot I entered your level. I imagine my gateway should still exist.”
Jàl sat back in the chair. His fingers intertwined, his thumbs spinning over each other.
“Are you certain this is the only way?” Conners Lee’s voice broke into the dream like state settled into Jàl’s consciousness.
“I’ve run countless computations. This is the only option left open.” His voice whispered and lazy, his eyelids too heavy to lift when he addressed the other man. The IV attacked to his arm continued its slow drip of sleep inducing drugs.
Roake stepped up to meet him. The digital jungle surrounding their reunion wavered. The sharp edges of the structures rounded and soft. The crowds on the sidewalks faceless and noiseless.
Jàl smiled to see Roake on her feet. As he stared into her eyes, she suddenly turned away, but not quick enough. The features on her face already fading. Roake ignored his outstretched hand and fled into the sea of bodies flooding onto the streets.
“Wait,” Jàl knew the voice pleading the words was his but his mouth remained sealed.
A flash of the side of Roake’s face straightened Jàl where he stood. Her eyes and mouth begged for his help as she continued running away. Elbowing into the faceless crowd, Jàl pushed aside the human forms in his effort to draw closer to Roake.
Through a tangle of bodies he watched in horror as she fell to the ground. Pushing and shoving to clear a path, when he reached the spot she’d fallen, the sidewalk lay bare. Confused, Jàl stared into the writhing crowd. A flash of sleeve from Roake’s uniform set him off in a new direction.
Again he forced his way into the jungle of arms and legs of the faceless human forms. The sleeve connected to a jacket. Soon Roake’s back waited only yards from where he stood. The crowd shifted. A second look and she was gone.
This game continued. Jàl so close and then nothing. He felt the sweat break on his forehead. From the humidity, he wondered, before disregarding the thought. The environment inside the game was stable, never changing. No. The beads of perspiration meant something worse. Fear. Fear that he’d be too late to help Roake and then a deeper fear that he couldn’t beat the Daemon and the real world would collapse.
All this because of him. A genius smart enough to program an alternate reality but not wise enough to follow the calculations through to the end. The end where reality could only exist on one level. Whichever level, the universe didn’t care. And now his mixed-reality world was somehow destroying the real world.
Still, the answer as to why, he failed to grasp but maybe if he could just talk to Roake. Maybe with her help, the two could figure this out. Now where had she disappeared, he wondered casting his head around to catch sight of her.
On cue, a flash of a hand waved to him from across the street. She stood outside the door to a small store. Jàl’s heart jumped as he waded past the limbs of the suffocating crowd. The thought of her lifted his spirits. The two could accomplish what he failed to do.
Stepping on the sidewalk outside the store, the entrance waited empty. Jàl tried the door handle. The door vanished. The store was different than any he’d witnessed thus far. Dusty shelves greeted him. On the shelves, different street scapes. Some in light and other in dark shadows. As Jàl stood in the doorway, a discernible popping sound echoed in the small space. The noise followed by small puffs of dusts.
Again, the noise. Jàl spun on his feet. His eyes traced the wisp of dust. A streetscape highlighted by sunlight stood quivering. On the corner of the street, an empty lot. No. The small remains of a foundation. Jàl crept closer. What the …?
This miniature layout resembled the streets of the Groundliers world. The building that disappeared, the same that he’d witnessed with Conners Lee. A second pop. Jàl spun again. Another building on another layout had vanished.
“This is on you,” the voice startled him. Glancing top, Roake stood off to the side. The features off her face scrubbed with a rash. The virus. Was he too late.
“Are you all right?” He asked.
“We’ll be fine,” Roake’s mouth moved to reply but the voice speaking the words were not of her. He watched her facial features quiver in the light. The details dulling. Mesmerized, Jàl locked his eyes on his friend’s face thinking he could stop what he feared may happen. Soon the face matched the voice.
The dream world brought on by state of unconsciousness switched to a dark room with an array of computer banks lit by a spotlighted. Jàl watched an image of himself bound before a large wall of monitors. Helpless, he watched swirling lines of code as they fused to form a picture.
Re-eal, the Daemon lurking in the background of his Mixed-Reality world stared back from the other side of the glass screens. “Now what have you been up to?” the digital creature’s facial expression contorted to a twisted smile, “The game is far from over.”
Jàl’s eyes shot open. His heart raced and sweat rolled down his face. Breathing deeply, his head lolled side to side as he focused on the heaps of clutter in Conners Lee’s lab. His heart slowed as the imagined reality of the dream faded. His thoughts about the strange actions of the program’s algorithms ended with a cold realization.
The Daemon responsible for splicing together the many random threads of information required to advance the Mixed-Reality world no longer hid in the background. A struggle for control loomed and he wondered which entity would prove the superior intellect. Him or the artificial intelligence of the Daemon.
Conners Lee suggested they wait until the wee hours of the morning, a time when most of the city would still be asleep. Jàl fought back against the nauseous roiling his guts. The bio-metric vessel to carry the antibiotics hard loaded into his blood stream. The only device available in the short time available had to be within Jàl’s body. The sacrifice sounded better then it felt.
Along with the strange feeling churning his insides, the back of his head ached from a separate procedure devised to theoretically counter potential loss of memory once he crossed the gateway to the digital world.
The whisper of the door closing snicked at his mind. Jàl slowly turned. A disappearing sliver of light remained from the leading edge of the door as it closed. Confused, he stood watching the last of the light disappear. What did it mean to him? Should he have walked through the door while it was open or…maybe he already had.
What level was this again. Which one had he recently completed? Jàl raised his hand to the back of his head scratching at a the base of his skull. The answers taunted from the edge of his memory.
Roake. He looked around. Where did she get off to? With a building sense of alarm, he moved from the last lick of light and melded deeper into the safety of the night. Find a place to gather your wits, the thought surfaced while the part of his brain tasked with survival mode moved his feet.
A few slow steps later, a bump of a kneecap against a hidden obstacle brought a string of curses seeping into the darkness as Jàl bent to rub the soreness from his knee. The jolt of pain sparked the intellectual part of his brain back to life. The inky dark of the digital game arrived with familiarity. But struggle as he might, the last few hours of his existence failed to refresh in his memory.
Roake. Again he searched the darkness. Her name whispered from his lips. The speaking of her name brought memories of her lying someplace stricken with the virus. Somewhere close. Yes, she lay ill. This level or…Jàl backed until he felt the coarse brick of the wall touch his back then let his body slide down until he squatted. With hands firmly grasping his skull, he let the fog in his brain clear. Options. He must have options. A line of coding crossed behind his eyes.
The mechanics of the game flooded his thoughts. Roake was near. On this level. Of course, he only left her minutes ago. But why? He touched the scar at the base of his skull. The implant. With the memory of the bio-chip came the rush of consequences that accompanied the usage of his mind to meld with the computer mainframe. A simple thought command could light the darkened space and ease his search, but. The risk of bringing any such help came at a cost. Better to wait for the games cycle to reproduce the artificial daylight. From there, he would find her.
Alone in the quiet darkness he scrunched tight against the brick wall while images of memories flashed one by one as they returned. Light broke over the top of the towering buildings. Awake to welcome the first rays of day, he felt confident the fragmented pieces of his mind had reorganized. One thought surfaced above all others. Roake had to be alive and nearby.
Why had he left her? That was one question where the answer evaded his recollection. Rising with the new day he studied the walled alley. Ahead and to his left, a foundation sat free of any structure. Odd, he reasoned. The algorithms mustn’t have completed the rendering for this section.
Jàl walked past the missing structure. His steps rang hollow in the blossoming daylight. His feet struck the sidewalk crossing the mouth of the alley at the same time the human forms began to appear on the empty walkway, the scattering of game pieces signalling a new start to the old game. A single game piece popped up randomly here and then there and as Jàl stood at the edge of the walk way the number of human forms increased.
A slow turn of his head allowed his eyes to scan the streetscape opening out front. In his mind, he analyzed the shapes and designs of the buildings hoping for a familiarity to narrow his search. Roake waited in one of these businesses, only, which one? Why did he have trouble remembering? He only left her side minutes ago.
The foot traffic out front increased. The mass of bodies blocked more of Jàl’s view with each passing moment. A tug of panic played at the base of his mind. Closing his eyes, he concentrated, forcing memories that were slow to reveal themselves, out into the open. A streetlight, passing automobiles, crowds hiding his enemies, dark, Roake falling ill, a building to hide in. Most of those things he faced from where he stood, so what was different about them?
A dull hum filtered into his ears. Jàl pushed against the intrusion of noise willing his mind to focus on the images flushed from his memories. The volume of the humming grew, filling his ears and disrupting his concentration. The sound was external, not in his head. A careful lift of an eyelid brought a moment of shock to his system.
Gathered around where he stood, the leading edge of a crowd of human forms bunched near him. Their faces blank and angled in his direction. The game pieces waited with their heads cocked…in wonder? Jàl’s shock faded to curiosity. This is new, he thought absently, then chose to ignore the strange behaviour.
Averting his eyes, Jàl’s line of vision strayed past the milling crowd, busy searching for the store front where Roake rested, expecting the sight of the familiar building to trip a response in his brain.
The circle of game pieces tightened the circle. The looming bodies crept closer until they eclipsed Jàl’s view of the surrounding street. The move employed by the games programming enough to shatter his concentration.
Jàl studied the bulge of human forms as they inched closer. A built-in curiosity of the unusual tactics of the game pieces switched to a shiver of claustrophobia. The circle tightened. Jàl stretched on his toes to see clear of the ring of faceless bodies and plan a route to freedom. The swarm thickened. Avenues of escape blocked. The heat of the crowd stifled the air. Arms brushed against Jàl. Sensors in his brain screamed for action before being suffocated by the crush of faceless bodies.
Panic rose in his chest as his arms became pinned and the weight of the game pieces squeezed tight against him. Struggling for his next breath, he pushed outward to no avail. Before a cry of desperation leaked from his lips, a surge of light overwhelmed his scrambling thoughts. Thin wisps of breath trickled into lungs restricted of movement by the constricting force of the human forms.
A certain calmness settled over his mind. Lines of code began streaming behind his closed eyes. The fear of alerting the Daemon behind the program’s operating system forgotten. With no more than a wish, Jàl felt the tide of bodies squeezing the life from him, ease. In that moment of clarity, the interior of a building appeared. Roake lay upon the table where he had left her. His mind scored above her wracked body and pulled back to show the exterior of the same business.
A second long breath and Jàl locked the location away. As his body continued to relax, a second image flashed across his mind. In a fleeting instant he captured a glimpse of the games avatar lurking in the background of Jàl’s melding with the computer main frame. A smile lifted the Daemon’s features as she too became witness to the virus inflicted soldier, as Roake lay helpless.
Endless armies of Verge surrounded the spectre called Re-eal. Before vanishing, the Daemon’s face swung in Jàl’s direction. The avatar’s features twisted into cruel smile that chilled Jàl. A slip of conscious told of seeing that expression before, but the where failed to click.
One thought did claw its way to the front of his mind when his eyes opened. Roake would no longer be safe where she lay. Not now that the Daemon, Re-eal, also knew where she hid. The race to protect his friend’s life doubled in urgency.
Free from the menace of the choking number of game pieces, Jàl felt residual drops of fear trickle down the length of his body. One more large gulp of air filled his lungs and returned an equal amount of courage. Behind unfocused eyes, his mind regained clarity. Only the lingering fear for Roake’s safety remained.
Fixing the mental image of the store’s exterior that sheltered Roake, Jàl pushed past pods of the discarded game pieces. The human forms forced aside, frozen and lingering in clumps and pairs of empty shells, their small parts in the digital world temporarily set out of sync by Jàl’s programming alterations.
Also free from the worry of discovery, he linked his mind with the grid, plotting out the quickest route to arrive at Roake’s side. Moving quickly amongst the scattering of humans forms, careful scrutiny of the surroundings failed to note any sign of the Verge. This fact alone caused its own form of anxiety.
The building in question was a couple blocks down and a few over from where he started. Relief eased the stress in his brow when the familiar sight of Roake’s hideaway crept into view. Jàl paused a couple of store fronts from his goal, stepped back into the shadows of a vacant entrance and studied the flow of foot traffic.
The deserted sidewalks of earlier, by this time, had become a hive of activity. The glitch caused by Jàl’s recoding had now been remedied by the ever present algorithms that monitored the games programming. The ripple in the game’s software discovered and repaired. The continuous loop driving the various entities of the Mixed-Reality dimension set back on its original circuit.
Jàl bided his time. Each passing game piece studied and dismissed. The fact that he’d not seen any Verge on his journey found to be disturbing. Why would the Daemon let him walk free? A shrug dismissed the worry.
Jàl walked from the shelter of the entrance, his head swivelling. Mixing with a small group of human forms he crossed the last block and side stepped toward the building and Roake. Another slow scan of the area nearest then with a hand shaking of anticipation, he seized the door knob and shoved the composite slab out of his way.
A mostly darkness stuffed interior blotted his vision. Thin shafts of dust filled rays seeped into the room from slits in the window coverings. Emboldened by the knowledge of the Daemon and her minions already aware of Roake’s location, Jàl pinched his eyelids together for the briefest of moments and in his thoughts pictured the inside of the store flooded with light. That’s when he realized his error and confronted the unthinkable.
The sight that rushed into his suddenly widening eyes evoked an attack of shock. More Verge then he could ever imagine witnessing in all his passes through the game, crowded the walled floor space. Before he realized the ramifications an awful and thunderous sound erupted from the mouths of his enemy. Hands flew to cover his ears. The unthinkable surprise forced him to retreat a step. The protruding knob on the door stabbing into his back forced away the temporary paralysis already clinging to the edges of his mind.
A breath half taken caught in his throat, then, with barely missing a step, he matched the unexpected ambush with a flurry of thought commands sent speeding to the main frame. Squeals and loud cries rose and then died as Jàl manipulated the digital world’s coding. At first, a random entity vanished. As Jàl withdrew deeper into his head, his thoughts became wishes and the wishes intensified. Small clusters of the Verge disappeared, their voices silenced, their presence erased.
In his mind, Jàl pictured the room free of the brownish skinned creatures. The roars and screams dissipated, the cries locked outside his self imposed train of thought. A slow rise and fall of his chest brought calm as his powers extended. The image of a room void of Verge crept closer. One or two flailed and emitted a cry no louder then a hoarse whisper.
Serenity rained over his mind. Success closed in on the finish line. His body slumped in a state of relaxation. The last of the Verge began retreating from his minds eye and all looked to be won. The hard fought victory within his grasp.
“That’s a good trick,” the biting chill of an ethereal voice gnawed at his conscious. “but it won’t hold.”
Jàl’s eyes flashed open. From under hooded lids he scanned his surroundings. Speaking bravely to regain the calm he was so close to, he continued to search for the source of the voice.
“I created you, I can defeat you.” He said into the now still air of the store. His voice a pinch high and projected with a touch more confidence then he felt at the moment.
His eyes traveled around the store’s interior, near the end of a sweep they caught a glimpse of a shadow in the glass of the street facing window. Taking a step in that direction, Jàl squinted. The shadow solidified in detail. Around the shadow, an bird’s eye view of the games layout. The scene in the reflection of the window sharpened.
Soon, Ree-al, the Daemon / Globe, returned his stare. The Daemon hovered in the glass, the reflection of the window acting as a monitor. A mock up of the streets employed in Jàl’s game radiated in a surreal halo around the spirit form.
“Speaking of tricks,” Jàl said.
“We have much to discuss,” the Daemon spoke. Her image growing in size until she stood full view. With her eyes locked on Jàl, she stepped from the screen of glass, her feet raising dust from the store’s floor.
Jàl watched with eyes piqued of interest more than fright. The image, the whole spectral reappearance, even the act to raise dust in the digital rendition of the room, quite the production.
“What are we discussing?” Jàl started the volley of words. The time for temperance urged caution with the disease wracked body of Roake so close.
“First, welcome home,” the computer’s false deity beamed a warm smile. “This is where you belong. This world I’ve made safe for you.” Re-eal’s features softened with her inviting words.
A shrug moved Jàl’s shoulders. “This is but a game, a digital reality borne of purpose.” He cautiously explained trying to keep his comments neutral, non-threatening. His tactic failed. The peace portrayed on the Daemon’s features melted, replaced by a fire behind her eyes. The avatar’s fists clenched with an anger climbing near the surface.
“Are you a fool,” she uttered, “the world where you came from is threatening to kill you as it is trying to kill that one.” Re-eal pointed in the direction at the back of the store where Roake waited. “I could have helped her, but when you refused my plea and passed through to stand on the planet, all actions in this world paused.”
“It is my world that I am trying to save,” Jàl said. “The poison that flows in the blood of my friend’s body can be cured…at least I think so,” he added.
“And if you're wrong?”
“I can’t be wrong. Too much depends on it.” As his reply left his lips, the weight of the Daemon’s words about passing into another world tickled at his brain. “You said I stepped onto the planet. When, what did you mean?”
“Have you no…?” The Daemon’s eyes narrowed as she studied Jàl’s face. “Interesting.”
“What, what is interesting?” Jàl urged.
“Enjoy the little time too have left with your friend. I sense she doesn’t have long. When she is gone we will talk again.” The Avatar swung around and faced the store window turned monitor. A foot lifted and melted into the glass. “I’ve a world to finish furnishing. You will come around when there is little else left for you to do.”
For what seemed like days, but knowing it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred minutes since he left the side of his friend, Jàl looked in Roake’s direction. A shudder meandered down his spine. He vaguely remembered walking outside when the artificial daylight crested the towering buildings that morning, and then…he struggled to piece the last few hours together.
Somehow and for some reason he ventured several blocks away only to discover that he couldn’t quite recall where she lay. The time that elapsed in-between those events evaded his memory. If it’s important, it’ll come back to me, he promised himself.
Jàl crossed to the back of the room. Roake lay unconscious. Her breathing barely audible. A finger alongside her throat detected a faint heartbeat. The dull sheen waxing her skin caused his heart skip a beat In the short time since he’d left her side, the spread of the virus escalated.
On reflection and after the short meeting with the program’s Daemon, he wondered if maybe something else had aided in the attack against her weakened system. Could any one product of his programming harm either him or Roake. Not likely, he reasoned, but a lot of things lately were probably not likely. The worst cases of illness to rise in the Cloud City took much longer to reach the serious state of decay that he now found Roake.
Even as these thoughts rolled across his mind, Jàl told himself that today, before Roake slid deeper under the grip of the disease and before Re-eal decided to return, he must find the passage to the lowest of levels, the Groundlier’s realm.
What he wouldn’t give for a single mist of antibody to save Roake the suffering. He sat and stared aimlessly at his fallen comrade. “I would give anything, do anything”, he prayed to a entity he knew all too well didn’t exist, “take the blood pumping in my body if need be to spare her life.” He silently mouthed.
The last mumbled line of the prayer stuck in his thoughts. Why, he rankled at the thought? Shifting in his chair, the material of his front pant’s pocket bunched. The fabric caught and pinched the skin of his leg.
“What!” He exclaimed, annoyed at his uselessness. Reaching a hand, he rubbed the area of skin. Under his palm a small object rolled in his pocket. Lifting from the chair and scrambling his long fingers inside the soft cloth pocket, the tips of his fingers brushed the object. A soft, oval…button?
Careful not to fumble the object, he raised the closed fingers close to his eyes.
A large grain of flesh coloured material sat squeezed between the tips of two fingers. The small oval a familiar sight, a design of his own making, but under the circumstance, the probable was dismissed. Jàl regarded the light pinkish button then, under its own power, his free hand reached up and rubbed the scar at the base of his skull. Now where did…?
Jàl made to flick the scrap away. An old implant, he snuffed at the object, shaking his head. Like things weren’t crazy enough. His hand raised and fingers readied to ping the implant across the room in disgust. An image caused his head to cock slightly to the side. He rarely touched the implants, new or old. The Doc handled that part of the operation…so why…and if he held one in his possession?
Jàl stood quickly. His chair tipping backward as he jumped to his feet and began pacing the sparsely furnished interior of the room. Thoughts nagged but slipped through his grasp, the bombardment of fragments failing to burst past barriers inside his brain.
Raising the implant for further study, something he knew to be important about the device gnawed at his memory. A light of dawning sparked in the back of his mind.
The seed sized implant he held in between his fingers, if he could read the minuscule serial number, he knew for certain, that it should be the one currently installed at the base of his skull. So why did he find it hidden in his pocket and more importantly, what type of device replaced it.
Jàl’s fingers once again found the scar at the base of his skull. The scar was fresh, in fact, the scar should have been long gone. Returning to his chair, Jàl stretched his legs and leaned into the back of the chair. Closing his eyes, he turned his mind inward. Curiosity mixed with a tinge of fear gripped his body as he self explored the chambers of his brain.
Eyes swiped back and forth covered by twitching lids. Behind the cloak of darkened sight, Jàl imagined banks of computer monitors. The images growing clear and detailed. In rapid speed, each screen displayed a separate but important cog of information vital to diagnose the compartments of his brain. The process speed increased with rolling displays of coded bytes.
A mental image of his person walked the long corridor of his mind. The hallway lined with a myriad of closed doors. Each door flashed a green light when his hand tested the knobs, each room open for inspection. A nano-second of pause allowed the rooms contents to be examined before the mental image moved to step further down the hallway. Tera-bytes of memory flow past his minds eye.
Closing what he believed was the last door, a faint red warning flashed from the wrong side of a lingering mist. The light drew his attention to the mystical barrier touting the end of the mind’s corridor. His mental image turned quickly but the light evaporated in the mist. Tired and disappointed, the mental image dismissed the odd show of colour as a sign of fatigue. Turning to walk away, the beacon flashed once again.
The decision to investigate the mist brought Jàl’s mental image back and ready to confront the mist. A searching hand reached forward. The mist engulfed the fingers leading the advance. Inches into the mist, a hard surface. A door buried deep in his mind.
Curiosity drew him a step closer with the unexplained urge to explore the mystery further. Even with his thoughts exploring the depths of his conscious, the world containing his physical body rocks in violent jolts. The unexpected surge worms into his thoughts. A tiny portion of his brain relay the information of his human body tipping with the chair. A shock of pain bit into his shoulder as the weight of his body crashes awkwardly to the floor.
The shaking continued. The crashing of objects in the digital world reverberate past his ears. The growing destruction sounding well into his conscious. A fleeting plea in an effort to yank his mind back to the land of the tangible. The grip on his thought process slipping away. Determined and with an innate curiosity to access the hidden room overrides the worry of self preservation.
Calm breaths ward off the fear of the quakes rocking the building. A return to the long corridor of his inner mind, a ghostly spirit appears, long floating fingers point back the way he came.
“Turn back,” the Daemon pleads. “Our world exists out there.”
“I can’t,” Jàl thinks the words in is head. “If that door holds the means to end the destruction of the different realities, then I have no choice but to proceed.”
“You will destroy everything we’ve built!” the Daemon’s features contorted. Jàl took a mental step back. In the eyes of the Daemon, a glimpse of the coming hell. “I built this world to protect you from your own failings. I can and will not let you continue to place your life in more jeopardy!” The Daemon’s words screamed in his mind.
Tired, scared, but determined, Jàl’s mental image pushed past the Daemon’s spirit toward the mist cloaking the end of the long corridor. His footsteps grow heavy and unsteady. Pain on the exterior of his body nip at his concentration and threaten to tear his beaten body down. Lungs, all of a sudden deprived of oxygen, leave his breathing ragged.
No matter what, he tells himself, I will finish.
Drawn from a final surge of hope buoyed from somewhere within his soul, he dregs up fond memories of the Cloud City and of Roake, healthy and strong. The pleasant thoughts reinforce his journey and a will to carry on.
A much larger aftershock sends streams of vibrations into every aspect of his worlds. The unsettling jolts followed by spikes of pain ignite the nerves of his body. Ears report the sounds of the building collapsing and falling in on itself. The floating spirit of the Daemon screeches for his attention.
“Stop and I will protect you,” the voice pleads and echoes. “If not, then perish with the others.”
The trembling increased. The rocking so violent it rumbled up his spine to the very stem of his brain and rattled among the walls of his skull. Chunks of the ceiling forced loose by the trembling world rained down. Sizeable chunks of building materials thumped on the faux concrete floor and pounded against the human shell left lying exposed on the floor when Jàl retreated into his mind.
Shucking the bodily assaults, a fight raged to maintain concentration and keep the mental image walking the dark recesses of the layered memories within. Fear and pain abound and were pushed back against his forward advances.
Whatever else happens, Jàl promised himself, the hidden door must be opened. The ramifications he could deal with later. After all, was he not the master of this Mixed-Reality.
Air breathed deep into his lungs lifted his chest. The hand of his mental image steadied then slowly rotated the knob on the red handled door. With the latch released, the door flew open. A tsunami of memories poured out from the hidden room.
Pictures of a world much different then the Cloud City. A ancient place inhabited by…the Verge…but no. The beasts only used the disguises to protect their human bodies.
A stranger appears. Conners Lee sits across from Jàl. The two are in a room clustered with lab equipment and tables and shelves stacked high with reams of paper and books. An image of busted building materials flicked into his mind. A structure, like the ones in the digital world, but wait. These destroyed structures are support for the uncountable stories of civilization stacked high above the surface of the earth reaching all the way to the Cloud City.
Jàl’s eyes popped open. The flood of memories enough to reduce the strongest willed person alive to a fear filled mound of blubbering flesh. Jàl steadied his mind. What he had to do, obvious. After all, bringing the 3 levels of of the city to the brink of destruction all landed on his shoulders.
The Mixed-Reality game, the fanciful toy of a bored adolescence genius, also, the unwitting vessel that leaked the infection into the upper levels. The virus contained for millennium on the lowest level of human existence, set free to evade and eradicate.
The game, an experiment that allowed a younger him a means to bypass the bio-shields and access the Groundliers home, even if his earliest success was wiped from his memory when he passed the gateway and physically stood on ancient earth, he still bore the brunt for the revival of the deadly disease. The misguided use of his intellect, the single cause of the current greatest threat to all levels of life on the planet.
To add to the burden, the algorithms he created to learn of and reproduce the Groundlier’s home, combined with the Artificial Intelligence of the Mixed-Reality program, blurred the lines of reality by ignoring the rules of logic and replaced the game’s renderings with actual buildings built of brick and mortar from the Groundlier’s world into the Mixed-Reality realm. The structures only able to exist in one reality.
How the process worked, Jàl still failed to understand, but he would learn. And quickly, or else the destruction of the Groundlier’s structures would bring about the end of the towering worlds above.
Why and how were questions yet to be answered. Possibly, could the Daemon lurking behind the game’s algorithms have formed a twisted sense of loyalty to procure the survival of the game’s creator, namely him. The gist of the words spoken by the Daemon in the chambers of his mind, haunting.
His head swirled as his conscious registered the dust and debris blanketing his body. A shuffle of his muscles wrenched a small cry of protest from parched lips. Jàl stared into the dirty air circulating above his face. Pain spiderwebbed across his senses. He lay helpless.
Above, where the ceiling once rested, a gaping hole and glimpses of the blue digital sky. The debris shaken from its perch nestled around him on the floor. Several large chunks lay across his body, his freedom halted.
“Roake!” Her name leapt from his lips. He twisted in pain to lay eyes on her. The hold of the fallen material too great. Jàl licked dust from his lips and squeezed dribbles of air into his constrained chest. The attempt chosen to relax his mind. The game was his creation. He willed it into existence and damn if he couldn’t manipulate it. But caution slowed his actions.
With eye lids clenched tight, Jàl imagined his body free of the ruble from the collapsed roof. The air drove the rise of his chest. The crushing pressure of the material fallen from above, eased. Screeching and tearing sounded loud in his ears as he willfully bended the digital world to his will. The power of his mind alone shifted the heavy chunks of digital debris.
A moments rest, Jàl struggled to his feet and dusted off his clothes. The interior of the store bore the scars of the roof shaken loose in the last tremor. A step forward and he tossed a hand out for support. Pain forced his leg to give way forcing him to take a knee.
The light streaming into the building shone through clouds of construction dust. Jàl blinked the sediment from his eyes. The skin on his leg lay exposed, the cloth of his pant leg torn and stained red. A knowing smile flickered across his lips. Move buildings and create worlds with his mind but the power to heel thyself…not yet available in this world.
Easing back to his feet, he tested his leg with a support step gently applying the weight of his body. Could be worse, he reckoned. A groan fluttered across the room ending his self studying. Roake. In all the chaos she’d slipped his mind. Stepping and dragging, Jàl pulled his bruised body past clumps of concrete and wood toward the back corner of the store. The table Roake lay luckily under an orientation of thick timber beams. Dust clung to her feverish skin.
A faint heartbeat pumped against the skin of Jàl’s fingers. Ragged, shallow breaths fluttered from Roake’s lips while a second whispered moan escaped her lungs.
Jàl returned to their resting place. In his arms, a bundle of food retrieved from the ammo dump of a level below. His smile widen as Roake looked up and greeted his return.
“How you feeling?” He asked.
“Good,” Roake replied. “Each day, I grow stronger.” Her words dipped as she finished the sentence. Busy digging through the backpack, Jàl caught the shift in her voice.
“You sure you’re okay.”
“Yeah. It’s just…” she stopped and planned her next words. “Is this it. Are we trapped here forever.”
“No. Of course not,” Jàl promised. “The virus. I need to make certain that you are no longer a carrier before you return to the Cloud City. Inside here, there is no one to infect.”
“You said then I can return. What about you?”
“That could be a long story.” He smiled at her to relieve her worry. “I will follow you out but not until I recode the games programming. I think if I leave, the Daemon will not let me return. On the outside I am powerless to stop her. I believe she’ll bring about the destruction of our reality if left unchecked.”
“Your mind and this game are one. Stop her now. Put an end to her existence.”
“If only it were that easy. The game intertwines with both realities and she, unfortunately, is an vital cog in the everyday operations. To eliminate her would be to bring about endless paradigms. None of which would do our worlds good.”
“So what’s the alternative?”
“Easy. I spend a few days or perhaps months in here until I can separate her from the system. Then I can complete my coding and return to the Cloud City.”
“A.I.L.E.N., lights please,” Roake’s voice commanded the AI, the sole occupant of Jàl’s lab. Stepping into the loft she walked the length of the floor and waited beside the ancient coffee service while the machine gurgled and brewed a fresh cup of the strong liquid. The taste, something she hated to admit to, but she developed a taste, no, more like an addiction to the bitter substance, all since her return from the Mixed-Reality.
Carrying the coffee, she crossed over to the array of computer monitors. Everyday for the past six months she made the journey to the quiet lab and checked in on the progress of the digital game.
A twitch in her arm reminded her of that day months ago day when Jàl arrived back from the Groundliers with the cure. Her, still lying on the table in the hidden store, suffering from the virus. She had phantom twinges where the long point of the ancient device Jàl devised and then used to transfer his blood into her system. A solitary red freckle stood as the only marker left of the miracle that since abounded and saved the population of Cloud City.
A shiver of a breath left her mouth. Her mind still marvelling at how close the world came to extinction. Jàl rambled in the remaining days the two spent together before she left the digital world behind. He explained how a glitch in the coding allowed the Daemon program to stumbled across the Globe and absorbed its knowledge.
How the Avatar stole the Verge program and gained control over the game’s adversaries. With the forged connection to the mainframe, she was able to turn the beasts into a powerful anti-virus tasked with fowling any attempts of Jàl’s to regain control over the digital world.
He told of his first visit through the Mixed-Reality game to the land of the Groundliers. Even with the memory wiped from his brain, how his subconscious used the forgotten images to populate the game after witnessing the beings on the planet surface. And how he also believed that the virus traveled back with him to the Cloud City. The only reasonable explanation to its sudden revival.
Footsteps of the AI as it joined her at the monitors, sent ripples over the black liquid in her cup. The slight tremors igniting a memory of the quakes that once shook the very home, the very city where she lived. Since Jàl remained locked in battle against the Daemon, he’d been successful in preventing anymore destruction of the Groundliers structures and thus eliminated the shaking and jolting thousands of floors above the earth’s surface.
“He looks tired,” A.I.L.E.N said from behind her back. Roake freed her mind of reminiscing and focused on the monitors. She caught the image of her friend staring straight ahead. His hair long and ragged, his shirt without sleeves showing bulging muscles from the work of carrying the heavy artillery used to slow the progression of the Verge.
Expanding the scene, Roake zoomed in on his face. Lines etched the skin on his face, his grey eyes, tired but alert. The beard hanging from his chin, although haggard, added to the steel of character she began noticing in his eyes months ago.
He may look tired she agreed, but something else had taken hold of him. What, she couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but he was different. Not all brains and cockiness…no…something far greater transformed his character.
Even as she analyzed the changes, Jàl’s hand crept to the base his skull and he began massaging the back of his neck. This practice, she’d talked about with him before. The headaches that dogged him for years could be traced back to his connection with the game’s main-frame. The discomfort, a precursor, warning of an attempt by the digital world to claim another of the Groundliers structures.
A loud screeching siren poured from the monitor’s speakers following Jàl’s built-in early warning system. Digital Jàl jumped to his feet and hitched the big gun in his arms into battle position. Before moving from the screen, he swung his head and seemed to stare into the monitor. A smile crept across his lips as he looked up. As he turned to go, Roake could have sworn that his eye closed briefly above the upturned lips.
As if he sensed her watching and winked up at her.